Thursday, February 16, 2012

Indian Railways for the disabled


It was going to be a train trip for me soon after a long time. I was traveling to Puttaparthi by Karnataka Express for darashan of Sri Satya Sai Baba along with my father who is a staunch devotee.  For a number of people train travels were something to look forward to and enjoyable. In fact they were enjoyable for me to till I became severely disabled having to use a wheelchair. Since I became disabled I tried to avoid train travels as much as possible but considering that it was the most affordable means of travel I was forced to use it on occasions.

My father made the bookings well in advance. The railways gave a considerably large concession on the ticket for the disabled traveller and one escort traveling with them making the travel very cheap. We had heard about a ‘Handicapped Coach’ that the railways had introduced in every train. But it was an unreserved coach so a disabled passenger could not reserve it and as a matter of safety and convenience a disabled person would rarely travels unreserved, therefore this coach was useless for us as it still remains to be for most disabled travellers.

Coach for disabled about 2 feet high and a feet away
from the platform without a ramp
I was happy for not having access to this ‘Handicapped Coach’ that the Railways had so generously provided. Firstly the coach was a second-class coach and considering in the scorching heat in May we were going to travel air-conditioned. Secondly the design of the coach was not exceptionally accessible – boarding the train was still going to be difficult and using the toilet was still going to be impossible. The most important reason why I was happy not using this ‘special’ facility was because I did not want to be singled out along with my family and placed separately. I found the entire concept discriminatory. In my mind it was like the British Raj where Indians were not allowed in the same compartment as the British, here the disabled travellers being same as the Indians.




State of the toilet in the coach for disabled people
One of the main preparations for me before a train travel apart from packing was organise my bladder and bowel as the toilets in the train are inaccessible to a disabled person like me. Just because the Railways have designed their coaches to be so inaccessible to the disabled most people with disabilities are faced with this challenge. Considering it was a two-day journey, I needed to stop my intake of food and liquids nearly two days before commencing the journey. It is not easy to do so because as dehydration sets in one begins to feel weak. Needless to say I needed to keep the intake to bare minimum throughout the journey.




Overflowing drinking water facility
This I must point out is just the beginning of the difficulties to travel be train. The Railways is proud of making its large stations accessible to disabled people, but here again there is much to be done. During a visit to the New and Old Delhi railway stations recently, I was amazed at the bizarre on ground implementation of these access features. The low drinking water sink was blocked and overflowing with water. The accessible restroom was located in the ladies waiting room making me wonder where a disabled man was supposed to go.  As for the condition of the special waiting room the lesser said the better.

crossing over tracks


In this entire thread of thought while making stations more disabled friendly there is no concern for the safety of disabled passengers. The basic issue of inter-platform transfer seems to have been entirely ignored. For instance, whenever I’ve travelled by train, I have always been taken as luggage over the railway tracks by a coolie, putting me as a passenger at a higher risk of accidents than anybody else. What disheartens me most is when I often read in news papers that the Railways in its understanding is sanctioning money to install escalators in various stations for the benefit of disabled people while it’s a internationally recognised norm that people using wheelchairs are not allowed to use escalators. A rule followed by the Delhi Metro and the Airports in India but happily ignored by the Railways. This again is an indication towards poor safety concern for the disabled.

The anxiety of travel does not subside even after reaching the platform well in time to board the train. The coolies that was hired to bring me over the tracks till the platform was engaged on the condition that he was going to board me in the train and leave me on my berth. Of course the cost of this is high therefore as a disabled traveller while the railways was generous in its concessions but because of inaccessibility the added cost to hire two coolies to board and de-board me compensates for the concession availed.

Once the train arrived and the initial frenzy subsided two coolies lift me like a sack of potatoes (one grabbing me from under my shoulders and the other from under my knees) and carry me in. There is no point in my feeling awkward or angry at the way I am physically handled as there are no other options in any case.  Train is about 50 cm higher from the platform and carrying me up is difficult, but the real challenge is taking me in through the extra narrow and extra heavy door of the air-conditioned compartment. There is a jam caused my getting in blocking the way for the rest.  In between all the confusion that is created the coolies struggle to squeeze in in through the door. There are always a few scratches or red finger marks of the coolies hand that remain as a memory of this experience. I take a deep breath of relief as I settle on my berth finally. One third of the journey is completed for me at that moment.

As the train rolls forward I stay happily perched on my berth enjoying the scenery outside as feeling bad about the way I am treated as a disabled person is of no use as in so many years of being disabled I have reconciled to this differential treatment, it is not something specific only to the railways in any case. My berth was my spot for the next two days as I am going to be able to get down for some fresh air at any of the stations neither was I going to be able to access the sink or the toilet. With a restricted intake there was nothing more that I could do to avert something as natural as natures call. All I hoped for now was for an eventless journey.

As the train jolted to a halt at the Puttaparti Station where the stop was just for a couple of minutes, my father was already at the compartment door trying to hail to coolies to help us out. He had already spoken to the ticket conductor explaining him our problem in de-boarding the train and requesting him to ensure that the train didn’t move ahead without letting us off. The TC assured him and told him not to worry and get of comfortably. In spite of hurrying frantically to expedite our de-boarding, the train jolted ahead with me in the hands of two coolies with one of them on the platform and the other still in the train. I thought this was the end of me but my father ran forward and grab me and put me on the platform. From the moving train the coolies unloaded my wheelchair and other luggage, it was clear that the TC had not bothered to ensure my safety as he had promised to.

This was a journey that is etched in my mind forever. Today as I have become older and broader physically I know that there is no way I can make a train journey ever again. The only mode of travel available to me is to travel by air. Since it is not something that is very affordable to me I am very restricted in my travel not able to take as may holidays I would like to.  I am discriminated and excluded because of only one reason and that reason is ‘inaccessibility’. As a disabled person only the more expensive services are accessible to me such as air travel instead of rail travel, using taxis instead of public transport, five star hotels instead of cheaper guest houses. It is as though I am being charged a tax for being disabled!

The concession provided by the railways is useless unless they provide accessibility and providing accessibility is not rocket science, it only required that the railways consider inclusion, safety and comfort of disabled travellers as one of their main objectives and then work towards it in a phased and an inclusive manner. It is not charity that a disabled person needs in the form of concessions rather we want inclusion and the right to use the service with the same dignity and convenience as anybody else. 




29 comments:

  1. I believe it is accessibility, and not Accessability

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    Replies
    1. Of all the hardships the lady spoke about and the pathetic condition of our country all you had to comment on was the spelling of a word?

      You pathetic fool !!!

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  2. Ramesh AccessAbility is the name of the organization I run and not accessibility.

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  3. Shivani, I felt really embarrassed and angry when I read this. I enjoy train travel just as much as you would have earlier and I had never once thought of how inhuman it could be for some to travel by train. However, as you pointed out in your usual calm way, it is not just the Railways. I would certainly like to share this article on our blog as well as other forums. I hope I have your permission to do that.

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  4. Please do share it Gouthami. I would love it if you did.

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  5. Hi, unfortunately your story is all too common in "developing / underdeveloped" countries. I am a quadraplegic and I work and live in Kenya and suffer the same challenges. We have laws in place which are just being effected and in the next couple of years I hope to see changes in regards to accessibility. However being the most affected it behoves us to create awareness and advocate for the changes we want to be effected.

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  6. Hi Shivani Gupta,

    I am a Vietnamese student who is doing MA in Development Studies at International Institute of Social Studies (www.iss.nl) in the Netherlands and I am planning to conduct my research paper in India about young people (16 - 26) with physical disability and sexual rights. It is so great to read your blog and to know your work in India.

    I wonder if you know any NGOs that work with the disable so I can write to them because I am going to India for data collection in coming July and I will conduct about 10 qualitative interviews.

    Thank you so much and looking forward to hearing from you

    Teresa Pham

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  7. Hello Teresa,

    I think it may be a good idea for you to connect with the Indian Spinal Injuries Center in New Delhi. They do have a sexual counsellor in their team and I am sure he would be able to assist you in contacting people for interviews. their web link is http://www.isiconline.org/

    Best
    Shivani

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  8. Apologize if I bother you; however, do you have a contact with a sexual counselor mentioned previously?

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  9. His name is Shivjeet Singh Raghav. You can ask to be transfer to him when you call ISIC

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  10. Hello Shivani,
    I was very interested in reading your train blog. I was born in India (English & Canadian parents) and left at age four after I contracted polio. I made my first return journey in 1997 with my husband and 12 year old daughter after an absence of 43 years and I went again 4 years ago, that time with just my husband. I am unable to walk and also use a wheelchair. We took numerous train journeys and I developed strategies to relieve my bladder discreetly under my shawl unbeknownst to anyone around and my daughter or husband piggy-backed me to the toilet once each morning. I was very concerned to hear you say you withheld liquids and food. I am fortunate to be a lightweight person. On my second trip to India I was delighted to see the disabled car and to use it a couple of times. Granted there is no ramp, my partner and porters lifted me and my chair in, but having a toilet room I could actually fit into was wonderful, in spite of the lack of cleanliness. As no one ever used the toilet seat (luckily there was one!)it had never been lowered so was only dusty, not dirty. Our problem with the disabled car was that it was full of 7 or 8 able-bodied riders (men) who wouldn't open the door until we hammered and shouted for some time. I was furious. No railway official ever came to check tickets or whether the riders were there legitimately. It was 17 hour ride. I would love to meet the next time I come to India. Judy Norbury www.judynorbury.com

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  11. Thank you Judy for sharing your experience. Would love to meet you to someday.

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  12. hello mam i'm also quardipledgic patient that suffers a lots of problems in day to day life nd nt able to go to other places due to the unavailability of recources..

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  13. We would be traveling with from Mumbai to Pune (using central railway) with two elder family members with various level of disabilities. We will compile various types of information and even take photos etc. to make their life comfortable. What would be the best way to share this information. We would be very happy to email or post it so others can use this info.

    Thanks
    Jagdish Parikh
    parikh.jagdish@gmail.com

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  14. M'am why dont you put up this article on a more public platform like facebook... The cause will garner way more attention... More peole will know of the hardships you faced and many others are facing for basic transportation needs of a common man.... And more importantly there is a greater chance of ther being a serious improveement in the situation if we could make it a revolution. Do try, M'am!!

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  15. Hello,

    Recently I took a train off the Sarai Rohilla Station at Delhi.

    As I am a handicapped person, let me say I am overall disappointed by the kind of service existing there.

    First of all there was no arrangement of any wheel chair.

    I had to resort to luggage carryig cart to cross the platform. The coolie carried me towards the very end of the platform. The slope there was too sharp and there was no lighting there. Even the patch of road there was in a pathetic condition. Just to add that crossing over the tracks was quite risky and dangerous.

    Does anyone have any idea what the railway ministry doing about how to have easy crossing of the platforms for handicapped people

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    Replies
    1. suda bhanu prasadApril 10, 2014 at 1:21 AM

      hi,

      Recently railways removed disabled couch at my location kakinada for gowthami express. I agree with you toilets are not clean and accessable. one more thing how many persons can travel by air like you. If your all relatives are allowed in the disabled couch. couch is very small how other disable persons can go to the toilet. If possible fight for the disable.

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  16. This is a wonderful, honest, and very helpful article. Thank you so much. Larry Van Heusen, USA

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  17. Dear Shivani
    Thank you for writing you rblog and what you are doing. My very honest and sincere appreciation for what you are doing. Hats off!
    Regards
    Vishal

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  18. hi
    can anyone help me please..?
    we are a group of non Indians travelling to India and disabled.
    as Non resident tourists..!
    do you know if we can access the fare concessions..for disabled people?
    if we can what is the procedure for accessing the concession?
    what paperwork do we need to bring along with us?
    and where / office do we go to obtain the concession?
    many thanks
    amar

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    Replies
    1. for availing of the concession you need to have a diability certificate issued by a government hospital certifying inter alia that you cannot travel unaccompanied. the form can be downloaded from the indian railway website. i dont know however whether foreigners are allowed to avail of the facility.

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  19. Thank you for sharing your Indian railway travel experience. You have explained very nicely of your travel. This article is very inspiring for us.

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  20. Hey Shivani

    Ur experience is very crucial &this is the same situation with all the physically handicapped people. I am also physically handicapped and this is the same experience I face whenever I hv to travel by train. I is disheartening that even after 68 years of independence, we r not able to make our society fully inclusive and accessible for people like u and me.

    Regards
    Kavya

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  21. Hey Shivani

    Ur experience is very crucial &this is the same situation with all the physically handicapped people. I am also physically handicapped and this is the same experience I face whenever I hv to travel by train. I is disheartening that even after 68 years of independence, we r not able to make our society fully inclusive and accessible for people like u and me.

    Regards
    Kavya

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  22. Thank you. This is a very interesting blog for me, as a design engineer. I do some pro bono work on public service designs for disabled citizens.

    I was part of the concept team for special coaches for disabled train passengers in 1996. My key take-away from your comments is that whatever services are offered, they should be consistent and reliable, as their users are restricted in their ability to do workarounds. The design needs a review, being 20 years old now. However, with due apologies, I cant help feeling that some expectations - not being segregated from other passengers while meeting special needs - could be mutually contradictory and not cost-effective. I havent yet seen a transportation system in the world (air, water, land) which does so - though all designers strive for this holy grail.

    I would be happy to hear more from you on your in-journey expectations (specifically trains & buses), so I can contribute my skills to better meet needs of mobility-challenged passengers. My current project is a design for a cost-effective (< 1 lakh) wheelchair for which requires minimal help to get into and out of, and that can be used for all daily activities, without need for a person by the side. Wish me luck, as I havent yet had a breakthrough in last 2 years.

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    1. when the railways cannot ensure that reserved coaches are not invaded by passengers without reservation i do not see them keeping the disabled coach free of interlopers. secondly undertaking a journey with a disabled person requires a lot of preparation and no care giver is going to travel unreserved on the off chance that he might get adequate place for his charge. there are two issues which need to be resolved. the first is wheel chair access into the coach. would it be possible for stations maintaining wheel chairs to also keep a few portable ramps ? pictures of such ramps are available on the net. secondly the wheel chair itself should be narrower so that it can not only fit through the outer door but through the inner ac door as well. i use a transporter as distinct from a self operated wheel chair and it is just 22" across; thirdly the ac door itself can be cut at the bottom and rubber tubing / flaps put in so as to allow the wheels through without compromising the air conditioning. the other issue is the toilet one. since privacy is important for those using diapers or bed pans why not make the first cubicle in some of the 3 tier coaches enclosed as used be the case in the old 3 tier coaches for lady passengers ? a set of curtains for each berth as is available in the ac side berths would give even more privacy within the cubicle, so much for trains. at airports cannot one of the toilets be modified to enable a disabled person to lie down and be changed.? a curtained off space, a stretcher trolley of the type available in hospitals and a bin is all that is needed.

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  23. Really, a thoughtful post. Indian railway system is one of the largest railway system in world. Also, click here to easily know about your train PNR status.

    ReplyDelete