Enhancing Accessibility: The Role of Assistive Technology in Built Environment

Envisage a world where you go to a lush and spacious park with a soothing pleasant atmosphere and here you see people with very different backgrounds enjoying this fabulous park. In this place you can hear different languages, see people from different ethnicities, smell the clean air with the freshness of flowers, observe the homeless vs. the wealthy, and see people with various disabilities. What if I told you that such a place exists! And I have had the unique opportunity to experience it! This place is in downtown Chicago, USA. 

I have duchenne muscular dystrophy, where I am unable to walk, and at that time I used a mobility scooter. During the summers from around 2010-2017, I stayed here.  No words could describe the freedom and independence I felt. I could just zoom out the door in my mobility wheelchair alone and go wherever I please. So many options to choose from such as reading a book at the lakeside, zooming around the many parks, visiting museums, having a coffee, and the list can go on. All this in the vicinity for me to travel with enough battery in my scooter. I also had the option to take an accessible bus or cab.  

Are you worried about me? How can I go alone everywhere? What if there is an obstacle on the road you can’t cross? What if I am blocked by a door? Is it safe? What if you get lost? So many doubts and questions about my safety, but thanks to assistive technology in built environments, we can put these concerned questions to rest. To give a few examples of assistive technology I have used are as follows:

  1. Use of ramps at all road crossings and smooth sidewalks
  2. Use of hydraulic lifts to enter some buildings with a few steps or inside museums. 
  3. Use of wheelchair accessible buttons to open doors to entrances of all buildings. 
  4. Pull out ramps in cabs and hydraulic lifts in buses. 

I have observed a lot of people with disabilities (PwDs)  leading a routine life in Chicago. I realized that there are a lot of people with disabilities, but where are all these people in India? I hardly observe them outside. Having the world’s highest population of 1.4 billion people and showing statistics of PwDs which are on the rise, India certainly has a huge number, but where are they? It is pathetic and utterly disgusting that we have not made them equal stakeholders of society. Creating built environments along with assistive technology is a crucial first step towards achieving this goal. 

Presently I live in Bangalore and it is almost the complete opposite compared to Chicago in terms of accessibility. I am fortunate enough to own an accessible car. This is a great benefit, even though there are limited places to go to and we have to do our research before going to a new place. Places like malls. selected restaurants, few parks, and some auditoriums are accessible. Thinking from a perspective of someone who may not have accessible transport, it can feel miserably heartbreaking. Who knows how many PwDs are stuck on a top floor unable to come out at all. No wonder we hardly see them. 

If we think that change will come and things will improve on its own, you are wrong! We have to work together to bring this change. Communities, advocacy groups, businesses, government agencies and even PwDs have to collaborate together. Do not think that this benefits PwDs only! In fact this will have broader social and economic advantages. Accessible environments with assistive technology enable greater participation in education, employment, and community life, leading to increased productivity and inclusion.

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