The university is yet to comply with many rules and guidelines created under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and recommendations made by the UGC. (File)
Despite the University Grants Commission (UGC) letters and recommendations regarding the implementation of the ‘Access India Campaign’ in higher education institutions, Panjab University is far from making the campus accessible to persons with disabilities (PWD), in terms of its infrastructure and technology.
A circular sent by the UGC to universities’ Vice-Chancellors in December 2019, asked for a status report with regard to the construction of disabled-friendly unisex toilets on campuses. The circular said that toilets in the university’s buildings should be retrofitted to make it accessible for ‘divyangjan’ under the Swacch Bharat Mission, using the university’s own funds. It also said that a status report on the construction of these toilets should be filled by December 16, 2019.
Another circular issued by the UGC asked whether the guidelines prescribed under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act for reservation of seats were complied with. The circular further asked whether the university had a properly functioning Equal Opportunity Cell. It asked if the university had adopted and implemented guidelines for “space standards for barrier free built environment for persons with disability and elderly persons” made by the Ministry of Urban Planning in 2016, and whether it had conducted accessibility audits.
Although there is a toilet for disabled students in the university’s Student’s Center, it does not meet the space standards regulated by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. Moreover, the toilet is not properly maintained as it had remained shut for a long time until it was reopened recently. “It had been shut because its key was with one of the students with disability. The student was made an in-charge of it, however, he had lost it so it remained shut for a while until a few days ago,” says Manpreet Mahal, Joint Secretary for PU Campus Students Council.
“The Students’ Centre being the hub of social activity for all students, should at least have adequate toilet facilities for disabled students,” says Pardeep Kumari, a PhD student and a PWD. According to Kumari, most toilet spaces on campus remain inaccessible to disabled students, including hostel rooms. “I shifted to girl’s Hostel Number Seven because the hostel I was in earlier did not even have a western toilet for disabled students. But even these washrooms are too narrow and do not allow for wheelchairs,” adds Kumari.
Many hostels have now attempted to create more accessible toilets by making sure there is a western toilet on the ground floor of the hostels, however, these toilets are often too cramped to be wheelchair friendly. According to Bharat, Hostel Warden for Boy’s Hostel Number Four, since most hostels except a few girl’s hostels do not have a lift, most disabled students are given a room on the ground floor. “Hence, we also try to equip the ground floor with western toilets. At least that’s the policy I follow in my hostel,” says Bharat.
Lifts are installed in few girls' hostels and even fewer departments. “The newer departments have a lift, but most of the older departments, like all the Arts blocks are completely inaccessible to disable students. Out of the 80 disabled students on campus, most of them pursue a humanities course, so at least on priority basis, we can start making all the humanities building accessible,” says Kumari, who is also pursuing a degree in Psychology.
Walking between various buildings have also proved to be hazardous for disabled students in the past. A disabled student claimed he had slipped and fallen near the Student Center, others had claimed that the footpaths were often too damaged to walk on, especially for visually-impaired students. The footpath outside the Boys Hostel Number Two is completely dug up as of now.
Equal Opportunity Cell
According to Rimpy, a PhD scholar and a member of the Equal Opportunity Cell at the university, efforts have been made to make the university more accessible to Persons with Disabilities, but since it has only been in existence for the past few months, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make the campus more accessible. “The cell was formed in 2019, after much struggle by the PWDs on campus. Now, we have also made demands for experienced staff members to be a part of the cell and our office space to be more equipped so we can carry out our work more productively,” adds Rimpy.
The cell is now headed by Ramesh Kataria, who has experience of working with the Equal Opportunity Cell at a college in Delhi University. “I know there is a lot more to be done, but progress cannot be made overnight. There are a lot of loopholes we need to get through before all provisions under the Rights of Persons with disabilities Act can be implemented,” says Kataria.
The cell has already made provisions for accessible toilets in a few departments such as the Chemistry department, where Kataria is a professor. “We had to reconstruct the toilet to make it comply with space standards and make it completely disability-friendly,” says Kataria. The cell has also made reservations in parking spaces of most departments for disabled students close to the entrance of the parking lot.
However, the university is yet to comply with most other rules and guidelines created under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and recommendations made by the UGC. The most important of which is an accessibility audit that had to be completed by the universities by 2018. “I do not know why the university hesitates in commissioning the audit, they should assign time and funds to do the audit, only then can we make substantive changes and make the campus completely accessible,” says Rimpy.