How differently abled friendly is our tourism sector?
Minister for Public Works Department and Tourism Mohammed Riyas in response to a starred question in the second session of 15th Kerala Assembly, has stated that the government has been analysing whether tourist centres in Kerala are differently-abled friendly. To make tourist centres in Kerala differently-abled friendly, the tourism department envisioned a Barrier-Free project, he claimed. According to his statement the works in 69 out of 84 centres were completed under the project. The procedures to complete the works at the remaining 15 centres are in progress, he claimed. The minister said ramps, tactile flooring, braille signs, differently-abled friendly toilets, wheelchairs, walking sticks and crutches are the elements included in the project. He pointed out that for implementing proactive measures under its Barrier-Free Tourism project, Kerala received United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)'s Emerging Global Destination-Accessible Destination Award 2019.
However, as per the information provided by the officials at the Social Justice Department, all 84 centres are not tourism centres and it is the total of all differently-abled friendly centres under the government's Barrier Free project. This includes government buildings and spaces that are differently-abled friendly.When enquired about whether there is an auditing on accessibility in these centres, the officials claimed that the procedures for the conduct of audit are in nascent stage. Similarly, even NGOs and people working for differently-abled communities are not aware about the list of centres that are differently-abled friendly. While Social Justice Department officials said that there is no such list and the website of the particular centre will mention it, if it is differently-abled friendly.
Meanwhile, it is pertinent to note that whether it is the tourism sector or any other sectors, accessibility is all about making differently-abled individuals self-reliant and independent. However, when measures for ensuring accessibility are implemented they often miss these two core objectives, said individuals involved in the differently-abled spectrum. This suggests that auditing is a must.
“Travel is an important element in tourism. So the question is, to what level roads, public transport systems in Kerala are differently-abled friendly. How many junctions in Kerala have bell systems for the visually challenged? How many taxis are wheelchair accessible? How many of them have tactile for the visually challenged? Even if the centre is differently-abled friendly, can they reach there independently?,” asked Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC)’s Sunil J Mathew. He also pinpointed that policy level change is needed to address the issues. “Not just in foreign countries. We have many examples in and around our country. Kochi Metro in Kerala itself is a good model of ensuring differently-abled friendliness, ” he further continued.
“Measures like lifting the wheelchair user is never a long -term solution. There should be measures to make the person self-reliant without the need of external help. Basically it is a matter of respect. Sympathy is not a solution. Suppose, a person using a wheelchair wishes to enter a houseboat. Asking him to jump from his seat so that some people in the houseboat will catch him is not a right form of ensuring differently-abled friendliness. Instead there should be ramps so that the person can easily navigate,” he added.
According to Meera Menon who is pursuing her Ph.D, the facilities at the so-called differently-abled tourist centres need a reality check on its maintenance. She, who has been effectively mitigating spinal cord disorder, had an embarrassing experience at the regional centre of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in Kochi due to a locked up differently-abled toilet. “There are differently-abled toilets. But in some tourist centres they are either locked-up or used as a storage space meant for dumping things. It seems they are not expecting anyone to use that and are just constructing them to comply with the legal formality.The problem is not limited to tourism centres,” she said.
Similarly, Unni Maxx of Thanal Paraplegic Patients Welfare Society says entities that are legally obliged to ensure wheelchair-friendly ramps play tricks in its implementation.``Hotels and shopping malls are crucial spaces in tourism. Recently, a three-star hotel constructed the ramp and soon after inauguration they demolished it. They converted the space into a car parking area. The same has been practised by many entities. Likewise, some construct the ramp, but they do not ensure whether they are built scientifically. In such cases it becomes just a construction meant for legal compliance that no wheelchair user can use.”
Maxx also pinpointed that those who are involved in the construction of differently-abled structures need to be aware of the objectives of these structures. “I am not sure how many staff are aware of various differently-abled measures provided at the tourism centers, though they are the point of contact. Even in our government-run public transport vehicles I am not sure. Splendid inaugurations and announcements should have the same splendidness when implemented and practised”, he said. Not just in tourism centres but also in all public spaces, the staff who are ensuring the differently-abled friendliness need to have technical knowledge about the community of individuals they are serving, he added.
Differently-abled friendliness of entertainment spaces in Kerala including theaters play a crucial role in attracting tourists. According to Paresh Palicha, film critic and a person effectively mitigating cerebral palsy, only few theaters in Kerala are differently-abled friendly. ”Only very few theatres, mostly multiplexes, are differently-abled friendly. Even when some theatre buildings are getting renovated, its differently-abled friendliness is not pondered upon,” he said.
Despite all these realities, Kerala is a front runner among other states in ensuring differently-abled friendly public spaces. Citing United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)'s Emerging Global Destination-Accessible Destination Award 2019 received by Kerala, Seema Lal, co- founder of Together We Can advocacy group and a special educator cum psychologist said that Kerala has a long way to go. “Indeed there is progress. But there is a long way to go. The issue is not simple and it requires ample time and ongoing efforts from diverse stakeholders. The UN award too says ‘Emerging’,” Seema Lal reminded.