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May 01


The right of free access

- by Shanti

For those who do not have full physical mobility, such as the elderly or those needing a wheelchair, accessing public places in Auroville is an unpleasant challenge. There is as yet too little awareness in the community that this is unacceptable.

Matrimandir, the House of the Third Millennium, is not accessible for wheelchairsFreedom of movement is something that many of us take for granted. We jump on our bikes to get to where we need to go, and without a second thought move in and out of our home, work, and play spaces. The landscape we know as Auroville, however, can appear quite different if we do not have full physical mobility. For a person living in a wheelchair, or for an elderly person, accessing public places can be a daily challenge.

Let's say that in the morning you want to go to the post office. The stairs at this Bharat Nivas facility would make that errand into a real task, and one that would obligate you to involve others. If after that you want to pop over to the Boutique in the Visitors' Center you may feel doubly frustrated as your shopping could be easy were it not for the couple of steps between you and the shop. Let's say by now its time for you to head over to Pour Tous. You can enter the store, but the aisles are so narrow that it is next to impossible to manoeuvre your chair. If you'd like to stop and have a juice at the snack bar, you could get put off by the extreme grade of the ramp that stands in your way. By now it's time for lunch. New Creation Corner? Hmmm, more steps. Maybe you prefer the Solar Kitchen and that's a good thing because the Kitchen is really a friendly, manageable space, with the exception of the bathrooms, which are not at all user-friendly. And of course, you won't be joining anyone for coffee afterwards upstairs in the Coffee Shop. As the afternoon draws to a close, it seems almost natural that you can't go and sit by the beach with all the sand around. But not so natural is the fact that you do not have ready access to Matrimandir. Maybe on some days you don't mind having to ask the Matrimandir Group to arrange for four attendants to carry you up and down in the special chair kept on hand for such occasions. But at other times, maybe you really resent not being able to just go by yourself and meditate as long as you like, without having to worry that some people are waiting to carry you down again.

Until now the Auroville community has lived largely unaware of the problems that failure to provide proper handicapped access can imply for those living with disabilities. A common excuse offered is that so far no Aurovilians have such needs. For anyone in the world who has met with an accident, however, and knows first hand how the limitations of one's body can change from one second to the next, and even for those of us who have had to live temporarily with restricting injuries, the flimsiness of such justifications is obvious.

Moreover, the number of older Aurovilians is increasing with time and their need for mobility will be an issue that the community cannot ignore.

It is perhaps a bit embarrassing that the problem of access should be illuminated by the presence of disabled guests to Auroville, rather than through the consciousness of Auroville residents. After all, many Aurovilians come from countries where significant efforts have been made in the past ten years to make public places and bathrooms available to everyone. Even in India, the need for "barrier-free architecture" is becoming more accepted, with institutions such as the Indian Institute of Architects establishing some basic guidelines.

The problem is neither lack of know-how, nor resources, as such fittings do not demand elaborate techniques or money. As Christel, a long-term guest who has been living in a wheelchair since she met with an accident some years ago, explains, "It's not that so much as to be done. The problem is for people to think about it". Christel has been visting Auroville 5 months a year for the past six years and has always felt strongly that it is in the community's interest to consider the needs of people such as herself. "In the future, Auroville will become a city. Many more people will be coming here and living here. Some of them may be like me. There will also be older Aurovilians. And then, what about mothers with baby carriages!"

Increase in awareness

ChristelOut of the strength of her convictions, Christel made a visit to the Develop-ment Group about three years ago. The initial reaction of the Group was one of embarrassment as they witnessed first hand the effort that Christel had to make just to enter their offices. Encouraged by the members' seeming willingness to take appropriate measures, on her return to France Christel sent the group complete documentation detailing the exact specifications for making public spaces and toilets accessible for the disabled. In the end nothing happened: the present members of the Development Group do not even know what became of the information provided by Christel. There is, however, more awareness of the need to begin to insist that architects and project holders take the necessary steps. Josebas of the Development Group confirms that, "When we approved projects in the past, we were not looking at these kinds of details. But now we realize that we must start doing so. For example, the proposed Town Hall and Plaza designs include wheelchair access ramps." Architect Anupama adds, "I would suggest that we create a budget specifically for rendering all our public buildings barrier-free."

But will the Development Group ensure that these ramps meet with the necessary specifications for width and degree of incline? Moreover, there is still the issue of ensuring that there are appropriate bathroom facilities. Until very exact guidelines are followed, it is not always clear if a building is indeed accessible. For example, while some contend that the new SAWCHU building is accessible from the back side, Christel asserts that it is impossible for someone in a wheelchair to enter the building unassisted.
The failure to give adequate attention to this issue may stem in part from the attitude of some people in the community that physical disabilities are like illnesses, and that illnesses are somehow associated with spiritual weakness and an inability to make any effective contribution to society. In response to the first idea, that being handicapped is like being sick, Christel remembers a moment when someone commented to her that she could never think about becoming an Aurovilian, since Mother had said that she did not want "ill people" coming here. "But I am not ill!" was Christel's reply. "I am probably in better health than you!"
As for handicaps and spirituality, Christel reminds others that people like herself actually have much to impart. "In dealing with our situation and learning to walk again, people like myself are engaged in real research on the body and matter. Was this not the work of Mother herself? We work on our will, our faith and patience. In this way we have a very active inner life and so many things to give to others."

A different perspective

In developing greater consciousness about handicapped people, however, it is important not to lump such individuals into one category and assume that they all feel similarly about their situation. Yuyu is another regular long-term guest to Auroville who has faced difficulties in moving himself with his wheelchair through the community. Whereas he agrees that handicapped access will become an increasing concern in Auroville as it continues to grow into a city, he is not entirely discouraged by the present situation. As someone who has learned to see the bright side of even the most difficult circumstances, Yuyu states that sometimes he does not mind asking people for assistance, because it becomes a chance to meet others. With a wry smile he adds, "I have even been carried in the arms of beautiful women!"

It is encouraging to note that Yuyu has found Aurovilians to be very ready to lend him a helping hand. "Sometimes in France, I wait 15 minutes in my car before I see someone looking friendly enough for me to ask them to help me out and into my chair. Here that's never the case." As such, Yuyu's experience would seem to confirm that when it comes to face-to-face interactions, many Aurovilians are quick to demonstrate their concern for others. The next step remains to translate that personal care into taking the appropriate actions at the collective level.

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