Vidya Sagar, a social welfare organisation working with disabled people, asked the children attending their school where they would like to go for an outing. The response was unanimous: the beach.
While Chennai has myriad attractions to offer for those looking to spend time in the city, the attraction of its beaches remains unparallelled. Sadly however, these beaches, despite being immensely popular, remain inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.
Efforts at inclusion
The efforts to make Chennai’s beaches inclusive has been in the works for over four years now. Various disability rights organisations have presented proposals to make the beach accessible by building ramps that would allow wheelchair users to be able to go up to the tide line.
Every year on the International Day of the Disabled on December 3rd, the civic body lays temporary ramps to make the beach accessible. The pathway laid takes users to the water, allowing them to enjoy the city’s shores. The experience generated a lot of enthusiasm and garnered positive feedback, as that had become the only time that wheelchair users and others with disabilities were able to enjoy the beach.
With calls to make the set-up more permanent, organisations such as Vidya Sagar, the Disability Rights Alliance and the Urban Design Collective provided inputs for the construction of usable ramps in both Besant Nagar and Marina Beach.
“We have been looking to make the ramp a permanent feature, but the coastal regulation zone rules mandate a clearance which takes time to obtain”, said an official from the Chennai Corporation.
Delays and changes
Multiple factors have resulted in the delay in the construction of ramps. The delay in obtaining clearance under the Coastal Regulation Zone rules 2018 was just one of the reasons that the work has not been commissioned.
The lack of a dedicated department or task force within the civic body that deals with the needs of the disabled is another factor. Works such as the creation of ramps or inclusive infrastructure fall under the purview of various departments, such as the works department or parks department, but neither of which has a real focus on individuals with disabilities.
Most projects that are aimed at bringing about inclusivity in public infrastructure are thus considered outside of the purview of the regular work carried out in these departments. The projects are labelled as special projects that usually require more clearances and are mired in bureaucratic redtape.
Vidhya Mohan Kumar of Urban Design Collective, the design consultant for the inclusive pathway says, “ The delays are also because the needs for individuals with disabilities are not really considered during planning. Even the inventory of materials that is owned by the civic body doesn’t have items that can be used to make the infrastructure inclusive. We have tried to ensure that the design elements that are proposed can even be constructed using items that are already available with the department, in order to reduce the delays.”
The beach pathway
Some strides were made in the proposal for a beach pathway in Marina and Besant Nagar beaches. But the pathway proposed near Ashtalakshmi temple had to be dropped as the local community’s funeral procession passed through the proposed pathway.
The second proposal for a pathway near the lighthouse was also shelved due to its close proximity to the Nochi Nagar market in the Loop Road. The one proposal that is finally set to be materialised is the one near the Labour statue, which will go right up to the seafront, allowing wheelchair users to go up to the waters.
On the progress on this front, Vidhya Mohan Kumar says, “ The proposal now for the pathway also seeks to provide for an inclusive experience. A museum showcasing amenities for disabled individuals is planned at the State Commissionerate campus. A short 250-m stretch near the pathway can also be made inclusive by making small additions to the furniture in a park on the way. An inclusive toilet is also present.”
“I am really looking forward to being able to go to the beach. This has been a long pending dream. The temporary pathway that is laid gives us access to the beach once a year. Since that experience, I’ve wanted to go there more regularly,” says Sreekala K, a wheelchair user.