Mumbai woman with cerebral palsy drives accessibility fight

  • | Wednesday | 10th February, 2021

The 49-year-old software tester Jasmina Khanna lives with cerebral palsy and can only commute to work by car or a special taxi service that allows her wheelchair to be brought in. 

The 49-year-old software tester Jasmina Khanna lives with cerebral palsy and can only commute to work by car or a special taxi service that allows her wheelchair to be brought in. 

So when Khanna found out a few years ago that the Central government had laid down guidelines for accessibility, she decided to do what she knew best-- doggedly pursue implementation with local authorities. Three years since Khanna took a survey of public amenities in Vile Parle, the BMC has approved transformation of two key streets in the suburb. Work will begin next month to make continuous footpaths, add kerb ramps and redesign bus-stops to make the two streets universally accessible.

Khanna has always had to work extra hard to be given an equal opportunity. Despite being trained as a software tester, she was given only data entry jobs which paid much less. It took her years to land a job at an MNC that she deserved. “There is very little understanding of disability in India. But perseverance pays off and in talks that I have had on equality, I have always advised individuals with disabilities to not give up,” she said.

During trips abroad, Khanna had noticed that the differently abled are very independent as infrastructure and public amenities are planned keeping them in mind.

"That is not the case in India. For instance, government guidelines require the width of a footpath to be at least 1.8 metres, where a road is 60 feet wide, so that a wheelchair can be accommodated. But during a survey that my friend Sanket Khadilkar and I carried out in 2018, we found that most footpaths in Vile Parle were either broken, encroached or non-existent," said Khanna.

The duo put together findings of their survey and drew a comparison with government guidelines. They sought an appointment with the local ward officer (K-East ward) and after some attempts, got through. "The ward office was accessible with ramps and elevators which was refreshing. The ward officer gave us one hour and was very eager to discuss our findings," said Khanna. A WhatsApp group was formed comprising civic officials, Khanna and Khadilkar for coordination.

In 2020, Khanna pushed the BMC to construct a prototype of a kerb ramp on Nehru Road. After the civic body green-signalled the transformation of two roads (Hanuman Road and Nehru Road), an architecture firm was hired by Khanna and Khadilkar for making professional designs of the interventions.

Architect Neha Shigwan from the firm led an audit of the two roads. The audit looked at obstacles on footpaths, street furniture like trees or lamp posts, road crossings and buildings with gates that opened on the footpath.

"While auditing streets, we think of the visually and hearing impaired, individuals with mobility issues as well as those with intellectual disabilities like dyslexia or autism. That way, one ends up catering to everyone, including the elderly, kids and pregnant women," said Parul Kumtha, principal architect with the firm, Nature Nurture Architects and Planners. Kumtha has previous experience in creating inclusive spaces across the country.

The designs were submitted to the ward office which then approved a budget of Rs 25 lakh for the work. "Stamped concrete will be used on the entire footpath and we will create ramps for wheelchair users. We will also make changes to bus-stops so that wheelchair users can get access to low floored buses," said ward officer Prashant Sapkale. The architecture firm has also proposed tactile guiding tiles and improved signage.

Khanna believes the BMC should have a separate budget for accessibility. She is now in the process of registering an NGO which will work on accessibility, education and rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities.

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