It was heartening to see the special provisions for the disabled in the Rail Budget presented on 25 February 2016. Some of the provisions introduced for the 'divyang' (yes, the current government has destined us to a lifetime of divinity through their terminology) that have been introduced include one-time registration for availing concessions while booking tickets online, online booking of wheelchairs and Braille-enabled new coaches. The Minister of Railways has also committed to ensure that all stations under redevelopment shall be made accessible in pursuance of the objectives of the Accessible India Campaign.
While one must applaud the Minister for Railways in making special provisions for the disabled, this is not the first time that such actions have been thought of. Hence, it is important that past mistakes are not repeated. An initial attempt to make the Railways disabled-friendly were SLRD coaches. This acronym stands for Second Class Luggage Rake for Disabled Passengers, but I thought of it as Sad Luck trying to Ride, Disabled Passengers.
While one must applaud the Minister for Railways... it is important that past mistakes are not repeated.
While the doors of SLRD coaches were made wider to help wheelchairs enter, the platform-to-train angle was too steep, meaning that a wheelchair user who wanted to board them had to pretty much travel with a weightlifter in tow. While getting onto the disabled coaches was difficult, there was a safety hazard even once one got in as they were disconnected from other coaches -- the luggage coach was in between, thus making communication with others during an emergency a big challenge. Challenges in having a smooth journey usually did not end once one entered the SLRD Coach as the "Emergency Pulling Chain", taps in toilets and height of electrical switches were too high for a wheelchair user and not made in accordance with universal design principles.
For many persons with disabilities, especially wheelchair users, the challenge extends to stations - a struggle to reach their train as they are made to move over railway tracks with no identification of platforms, demarked pathways and poor lighting at most stations.
Earlier this year, the railways put on display a model disabled-friendly coach. The disabled community was excited that the railways were moving one step ahead in accessibility, only to realize that the coach had no ramp or hydraulic lift to facilitate boarding of wheelchair users. What was even more appalling was the reason given by a rail official - no such facility was being provided because the train had once left without the provided ramps being removed.
Under this current strategy persons with disabilities will probably be forced to wait for light years for all stations to be fully redeveloped....
The ideal solution towards making Railways accessible is a universally standardized design for both train coaches and platforms that would ensure they are at the same level, thus ensuring ease of entry. Tactile tiles should also be added across the station (leading up to the train) so that the visually challenged can travel easily. In an ideal world, there can also be elevators on each platform enabling the disabled to move from one to another. All this is doable, as shown by the Delhi Metro, one of India's most accessible transport systems (although it has become sloppy in its accessibility standards in some newer stations, that's a debate for another day).
I would assume this ideal solution is what the Minister of Railways was referring to while mentioning that all stations under redevelopment would be made accessible to 'divyang' in pursuance of the objectives of the Accessible India Campaign. While this is a welcome step, it is important to remember that the Accessible India Campaign itself has failed to fully kick off due to a shortage of accessibility auditors. Thus, under this current strategy persons with disabilities will probably be forced to wait for light years for all stations to be fully redeveloped.
What might be a faster solution is to work on a way to make SLRD coaches fulfill their purpose.
What might be a faster solution is to work on a way to make SLRD coaches fulfill their purpose. There are two solutions that come in to my mind here -- either a removable ramp in the coach (like in low-floor buses) or modified, standardized, lockable-to-coach haath gaadis that can be used as a ramp for wheelchair users.
For inter-platform movement an immediate solution would be identifying and colour-coding the paths of movement along with a clear identification of platform number during movement. Things could be made easier with proper lighting and an easily available direction map to help wheelchair users.
It is great to see the Minister of Railways' interest in access for persons with disabilities. His vision, if executed, will immensely help make the railways accessible for generations to come. However, as a wheelchair user who has never travelled I do hope the minister does look at some immediate steps he can take in making the railways accessible to the current citizenry of this country. For as Keynes said, "In the long run we are all dead."
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