The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:719] A Socio-Economic Approach to Universal Design


“The problem is not how to wipe out all differences but how to unite with all differences intact.”- Rabindranath Tagore

Disability is the product of the interaction between individuals and their environment, rather than a problem of the individual in isolation (Hahn, 1986). Upto the 20th century, functional architectural design catered only to the able-bodied, excluding a large swathe of the population who were physically or mentally impaired. Such exclusion of the differently- abled, prevented them from fully participating in the socio-economic development of their communities and the society at large. Creating a barrier-free, accessible environment used by all sections of the population is thus imperative for enhancing human capital in an inclusive society as envisioned by Tagore.

India accounts for one-third of the world’s disabled population. Across India, accessibility has often been relegated to the background vis-à-vis provision of rudimentary needs. It is therefore important to address this issue of inclusive design at grassroots level by prioritizing the uplifting of human capabilities equitably.

Bangalore, known as the Silicon Valley of India, has developed rapidly over the past few decades due the influx of money and modern lifestyles. Parts of the city have however, been left behind in the process of urbanization. Neelasandra is one such isolated neighbourhood, A visit to Neelasandra opened my eyes to the enormous possibilities available to create an inclusive environment, given the prevailing socio-economic constraints.

On the narrow, cobbled and irregular streets of Neelasandra, I saw women cooking, washing clothes and vessels and bumped into children playing. Much as in any lower middle class settlement in India, the streets double up as activity spaces for the residents and parking spaces for their two-wheelers. The slum itself is sharply divided; on one end of the economic scale are the houses with thatched roofs, tiled roofs and on the other end, concrete houses. The pavements if any there are, serve as makeshift homes for the poorest among them. A social aspect of the area is that there are predominantly Hindu or Muslim pockets, each with its unique sub culture.

A majority of family members are dependent on the daily wages of earning members. Men are occupied as masons, watchmen, mechanics or petty vegetable, fruit, fish, (etc.) sellers or in painting and construction jobs for contractors. A few of them are relatively better off, working as auto rickshaw/ corporation vehicle drivers or police constables, women (non-Muslim) work as domestic maids, school helpers, or by rolling agarbathis. Incomes range approximately between Rs. 1000-3000 per month.

There is a strong relationship between poverty and disability. Poverty can be identified as being linked to causes of disability. The major causes of disability are malnutrition, non-infectious diseases and congenital diseases, followed by accidents, trauma and war and infectious diseases. (DAA, 1995, p.9). In a lower middle class settlement like Neelasandra, the lack of hygiene and sanitation and lower literacy rates have a strong correlation with the high incidence of locomotor disability caused by polio and other diseases.

As a result of the polio attack, a number of children suffer from post-polio locomotor disability. It is due to this reason that in 1989, Neelasandra was chosen for the Urban Slum Outreach Programme of the Association for the People with Disablities(APD). APD is a Not-for-profit organization, dedicated to improving the lives of differently-abled persons.

This project aimed to reduce poverty and promote development through medical intervention and community organization. The first of many steps was to identify children with locomotor disability, refer them to hospitals for surgery and help in post-operative therapy. These steps helped the disabled child gain greater mobility. Along with mobility came the need for education, access to which had been so long denied to the disabled child. However, local schools had never considered the educational needs of a disabled child. It was only due to the patient and determined efforts of APD workers that local schools agreed to accept these children. As part of the community organization, APD involved ‘mothers’ as key players in the mission to spread social awareness about the special needs of the people with disabilities.

In spite of these efforts, the ground reality was that for most families of disabled children, tackling poverty took priority over attending disability issues and needs. One of the girls who lived there was disabled because of polio. Her parents belonged to the poorest sections of society. Providing her with access was impossible for them.

It was at this stage APD again helped by carrying out minimum architectural interventions both in the homes and the community schools. The girl’s accessibility and mobility was improved by providing a ramp to her house and fitting her house with a toilet specially designed by the National Institute of Design (NID). The local community school had grab rails and ramps at the entrance of each classroom. What was special about the school was that the ramps, slopes and grab rails blended so beautifully with the existing structures in the school that it did not appear to have been especially built to provide access to the disabled. This in itself removed the stigmatization and marginalization that the disabled are frequently subjected to. These access interventions benefitted a large number of disabled children, enabling and empowering them.

APD’s own school Shradhanjali caters to the disabled children of the city. The school is totally disabled friendly with ramps, grab rails, walkers, wheelchairs, low tables and chairs, wash basins at low heights and a play area to suit the needs of its students who have different kinds of disabilities. The children, full of joy and cheer, rush out during the break spreading sunshine and happiness all over the campus.

Kilikili, a registered trust formed by the parents of children with disabilities and the Municipal Corporation have come together to create welcoming and accessible play spaces in the public parks of the city. These play spaces provide children with disabilities an opportunity to socialize with their peers while sensitizing the children without disabilities to their needs. Some of the play equipment include wheelchair merry go round that caters to children with multiple disabilities, wheelchair sand pit, Basketball hoops set at two levels, an inclusive sand pit. The impact of this is a decrease in fear and increase in confidence in the differently-abled children and visibility leading to greater awareness in the immediate community.

APD alongwith other such organizations have thus effectively created an accessible environment for the disabled from the economically weaker sections of the society. However, accessibility should be viewed as a continuum and not as an isolated experience. In other words, a city is accessible to all its users only when designers intervene not only at the architectural or building level but the urban landscape.

What more to be done?

Creative solutions have to be provided keeping in mind the socio-economic context of emerging India. These solutions should be aimed at creating accessible living environments, inclusive public spaces and barrier-free approach to public transport.

• Living environment

• Inclusive public spaces

• Linkages, such as public transport

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