A new working group ‘New Abilities Link' has been set up to ensure that all Auroville public places and recreational areas can be accessed by the disabled .
Their numbers are increasing: long and short-term visitors who are physically disabled. “It was nice to discover this place with its spirituality,
its ecological living, its alternative technology and international culture,” says 31-year old Alex from Germany who came for a 1½ months visit in January. “But apparently, you people haven't given much thought to those who are ‘differently abled' – including those of us who have to move around in a wheelchair.”
Since he was thirteen years old, Alex has suffered from muscular dystrophy, an illness which has made it impossible for him to walk. A wheelchair is essential. Nearly everywhere in Europe and in the USA , governments have passed laws mandating wheelchair access for public buildings. In India , the “Persons with disabilities Act” puts obligations on governments and local authorities to create barrier-free facilities. But few of the law's provisions are implemented. Auroville also has a complacent attitude and is certainly far from a society where ‘the needs of the body will be provided for equally in the case of each and every one'. (From The Dream by The Mother)
Auroville Today highlighted the problems in May 2001, in an interview with regular visitor Christel who has been wheelchair-bound following an accident. She has tried to convince architects and town planners to make Auroville barrier-free. But not much has happened. Alex testifies to this state of affairs. “It's difficult for a wheelchair guy to move around in Auroville,” he says. “The cycle paths we like to move on are riddled with bunds and potholes and often have sharp curves and barriers. For a cyclist this is no problem. For someone in a wheelchair, it's plain hell. The alternative is to drive on the main roads but that's playing with your life, quite apart from the dust raised by speeding traffic – if you have your nose about one meter above road-level, it's difficult to avoid inhaling dust. Often I had no alternative but to take a taxi – with attendant complications.”
While Alex appreciates that in Auroville's undeveloped state criticism of the roads is perhaps a bit unfair, he has no sympathy for the inaccessibility of Auroville's public places and recreational areas. “If Auroville wants to live up to its ideals, it should provide proper access for disabled people and ensure that there are appropriate toilet facilities,” says Alex. “But only a few public buildings are properly equipped. Take, for example, the ramps leading down to the Matrimandir entrances. They are far too steep,” he says. “I invite the architects to step into my wheel chair and try it out for themselves. If there is no-one to help you brake when you go down, you crash; and without someone to push, you don't get upwards.” And he adds, “A slope shouldn't have a gradient of more than five per cent.” The visit to the Inner Chamber is also fraught with difficulties. Writes Jon Stein, another visitor who came to Auroville in a wheelchair: “My experience of being escorted into the Matrimandir like a maharaja on his throne would make an article in itself.” Says Alex: “Initially I intended to go to the Chamber every day, but I changed my plans because it is very difficult for me and for my helpers.”
Jon writes, “Auroville has been a wonderful place to convalesce, but there have been difficulties. The main challenges I faced included obtaining information on access issues, physically reaching buildings and subsequent entry into buildings. The experience has been frustrating, undignified and, at times, exhausting.” He then made a number of suggestions about how the situation could be improved.
Jon and Alex's criticisms have found a sympathetic hearing with a group of Aurovilians who started the work group ‘New Abilities Link'. Their objective is to ensure that all Auroville public places and recreational areas have barrier-free access and are disabled-friendly.
Susmita, one of its members, describes the aim of ‘New Abilities Link' as follows: “Barrier-free access is important for many people. It benefits the young and the elderly, as well as those who walk with difficulty or insecurity or need braces or crutches, pregnant mothers and people with temporary ailments. New Abilities Link wants to sensitize planners and builders. In a later phase, we want to lay down by-laws for public and recreational places in Auroville. We are not only talking about ramps and railings and appropriate toilets, but also about creating special parking areas near the buildings and creating evenly levelled pathways from a parking area to the building.”
For the ‘differently-abled', this would be a blessing. Says Alex, “Today, Auroville is too difficult for me. I had many talks with my girlfriend on joining Auroville permanently. But this would only be possible if these issues were to be addressed. Otherwise, I don't think I would return.”