BY ANINDITA DAS
Photos by Anis Ul Haque
The birds perched on top of the trees chirped, almost nodding in affirmation when the differently-abled people spoke about their problems regarding access to clean water and toilets. A conversation on “Barrier-Free Environment in WASH for Persons with Disabilities” held on December 12, 2015 in the open courtyard at Shishu Sarothi, a premier centre for rehabilitation and training for multiple disabilities in Guwahati.
“I have to hold my bladder while travelling. It becomes extremely difficult and embarrassing at the same time to relieve myself. I have to ask people to clear the space around me and do it near my seat. I can never use the bathrooms in the trains as those are not disabled-friendly”, said Silsila Das, of Shishu Sarothi.
The conversation was organised by Sanitation Scribes, in association with Shishu Sarothi and Thumb Print Foundation, supported by UNICEF Assam. Arman Ali, Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi moderated the conversation. “When we take our students to any public place, they do not have a toilet to use”, a special educator for persons with disabilities expressed her concern.
Dr Navanil Barua, Neurosurgeon, GNRC, R.C Jain, MD, Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhiyan (RMSA), Vinod Seshan, DC Kamrup (rural), senior architect Ramen Baishya, Sabrina Iqbal Sarkar, faculty, Cotton State University, Teresa Rehman, managing editor, the Thumb Print, Tahseen Alam, communication officer, UNICEF, Sweta Patnaik, WASH Specialist, UNICEF, Madhu Goenka, governing body member of Shishu Sarothi, advocate Rituparna Roychoudhury, Anindita Dutta, educator Sanskriti the Gurukul, teachers and students of Royal Global School, Students from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, parents and special educators of differently- abled children participated in the discussion.
“When we make buildings, houses and roads we do not think about people with disabilities. Sanitation is an alien issue about which people scarcely talk. Some people with disabilities cannot even articulate what they go through. No infrastructure is designed keeping in mind the disabled people”, said Ali.
A participant raised an important point that often there are three kinds of toilets in public places – male, female and disabled. But the toilet for the disabled is often unisex and not segregated into male and female. This is often embarrassing for the users.
R.C Jain, who has been proactive with the sanitation issue in the schools of Assam, mentioned that the people are responsible for not using the facilities provided for them. “There are different types of laws in India, but we Indians have a tendency to flout laws. Separate laws have been made for persons with disabilities by the Indian Government. There cannot be any school without having children with disabilities and in Assam four thousand children have been enrolled so far under PWD (Persons with Disabilities) rule,” he further remarked.
Dr Barua said that he often communicates with about health and hygiene with the community people in the rural areas, but he rarely talks about disability. “It is simply because of the fact that we do not take them into account unless they increase in numbers. Talking in medical terms if a person has to hold urine for 8-9 hours, it might exert tremendous pressure in her/his kidney, which can even lead to kidney failure. Why does she/he need to do that? It is not at all an expensive affair to make them have access to WASH, with the required privacy as well as maintenance”, remarked Dr. Baruah.
It’s not just public toilets but even toilets at home doesn’t seem to be accessible for the differently-abled. Teresa Rehman shared her experience of visiting a wheel-chair bound girl, who defecates while standing. An inexpensive makeshift bamboo chair-type toilet was made for her. But after it was damaged, her family did not bother to repair it. “It is not only access outside, even inside the house we tend to ignore the inconvenience faced by the persons with disabilities,” she commented. Moreover, the sanitation needs of an adolescent girl is further compounded when she has to take are of her menstrual hygiene.
“It is in reality is a matter of attitude. People need to be sensitized a lot about disability. In the first instance we must have a complete change in attitude, the question of access comes later”, observed Seshan.
But awareness levels have gone up feels Baishya. “When in 2002, we designed the IIT buildings, no such provision was made for people with disabilities. Later on the government made mandatory to include provisions, and we are trying our best to incorporate those”.
Sabrina Iqbal Sircar of Cotton State University spoke about her institution where recently a ramp has been constructed. “I would specifically like to raise the issue of menstruation. Sanitary napkins should be made available for the girls in the educational institutions. As far as question of hygiene is concerned, disabled- friendly WASH facilities must be provided,” she further stated.
Lawyer Rituparna Roychoudhury emphasised that the high-tech Gauhati High Court building does not have facilities for disabled people. She said that while making building laws, provisions should be incorporated and the laws must be strictly regulated.
Nilotpal, a visually impaired person appreciated the fact that a topic such as the sanitation needs of differently-abled people has been picked up as a topic of discussion. A student of Royal Global School said that all the schools should contribute to the education for the persons with disabilities without any barrier on WASH and other facilities.
There was a consensus among everyone that a lot needs to be done to generate awareness about the needs of persons with disabilities. And while making provisions in the infrastructure, efforts must be made to render them a barrier-free environment in all aspects, specifically WASH, to develop their potentialities without any obstacle.