Some people are left handed, others right handed; some short sighted and long sighted or no sighted (blind) – people vary in functional capacities and abilities. Some may suffer impairment of senses owing to birth, illness or accident and that can affect their mobility, dexterity, reach, balance, either permanently or temporarily. But is our real estate infrastructure geared to embrace people with diverse abilities. Are we building with a universal design approach?
The good news is that premium commercial real estate is taking the lead in the matter what with “disability becoming a boardroom agenda” for many corporates who are demanding inclusive spaces from property managers and owners. Take the case of Brookfield Properties, a fully-integrated, global real estate services company that develops and manages premier commercial real estate across the country- they share that there is a checklist of must-haves that every big company brings to them while doing due diligence of which office to occupy and “disability” has become an important criterion now. Their clients such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Accenture, Tech Mahindra, TCS – all have made “disability compliant buildings” as their priority, and for space solution providers such as them, it is no longer “a matter of gain, but hedging the risk and investing into the future of our business,” says Shantanu Chakraborty, Senior Vice President, Business Head (North) Brookfield Properties who adds, “For most corporate occupiers, it may started with a “it’s a good to have this” but over the years “it has become a must-have” and is
“on radar of corporate real estate departments of progressive companies”.
What exactly is a perfect building? An ideal building is one where anyone can navigate through, without assistance. For instance if a blind person is entering a building, the brails on the railings should guide him as to where to go, the anti-skid tiles protect him from slipping. The lift must have panels with brails (a feature that all Grade A building lifts mandatorily have today but was not so prevalent five years back) and the height of handrails plus even the height of panels in lifts needs to be at two levels, for a person who is standing as well as sitting. (on a wheelchair at a lower/horizontal level). However, there are some gaps in understanding and implementation. For instance there are a lot of places that have ramps but no rails! There are many nuances to making a building accessible to everyone, says Chakraborty who adds that creating ramps is very easy, but one needs to really understand the right slope, the right surface and finer points such as these- it requires specialist inputs and these have now be assimilated from RBWD Act (Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016) and NBC 2016.
What are some of the important guidelines by NBC 2016? The norms mandate that the entrances and exits to the building should be levelled, and wherever level difference is required, the same must be negotiated with ramps. Lifts should be spacious enough for wheelchairs, and in case of hostels/ residences, for stretchers. Staircases should be designed to facilitate safe assisted evacuation/rescue in emergencies; risers and treads should be of different colour for easy identification; surfaces should be slipresistant. Wide door openings and easy door operation, sufficient space around doors that makes it possible to open and close them when seated in a wheelchair. Proper signages should be provided for guidance. Facilities for disabled should be indicated with appropriate signages. Tactile path and markings on roads, parkings and pavements should be provided.
While latest projects are towing the line, what about the old ones. Experts say that retrofitting is possible and experts say that today solutions are prevalent across the boards, at different price points.
Cost wise, cost of a new building with an inclusive design approach, goes up by Rs 25-30/sq ft. But corporates are willing to invest. “We feel there is a dire need to bring in disability inclusion at the corporate level for person with disabilities, and for everyone to grow with equal opportunities,” says Lakshmi C, Managing Director, Human Resources Lead, Accenture in India. Accenture India office is wheelchair friendly and sign language interpreters are available. They are also re-designing busy areas such as cafeterias for barrier-free movement. Capgemini India also has requisite Infrastructure, IT systems, and has made reasonable adjustment to persons with disabilities. Candor TechSpace has been adding facilities such as segregated pedestrian walkways with tactile pavers, floor directory with information in Braille/ tactile/audio format.
Currently majority of disabled people are deprived of employment as they are viewed as liabilities rather than assets. In India alone, 74% of persons with physical disabilities are unemployed according to the International Disability Rights Monitor, ‘Regional Report of Asia’. Globally over 1.3 billion people are disabled and many of them are deprived of employment for the lack of suitable amenities infrastructure.
“We do need to change the way, we, in the corporate world look at disability”, says Anand Mahindra, Chairman Mahindra Group. “I have often wondered how many of us could crack the IAS exam without being able to see, as Pranjil Patil recently did, or act without being able to hear, as the Oscar winning leading actress did in Children of a Lesser God.
People who don’t have the same faculties as the rest of us can do more, not less.” He adds that for an employer such a person, of proven grit, one who refuses to accept limitations, a person who has been tried and tested, and has demonstrated the ability to rise to a challenge to succeed, against the odds, a person who tries harder, can be a very valuable asset. “To me, a person with disability is one with extra ability,” says Mahindra.
One person who has helped in taking disability inclusion to boardroom of top companies is Irish activist Caroline Casey, Founder of The Valuable500 (a global movement of putting disability on the business leadership agenda). She is registered blind and has to date, got more than 400 companies globally to sign up the to support this cause. “Organisations like Brookfield Properties, Accenture, Mahindra, Unilever, Microsoft, Barclays, Fujitsu, Cinepolis, have the power to make a real difference in their respective sector”, says Casey, who adds that there’s momentum building in India.
Urban planners and architects are working towards putting together infrastructure that caters to diverse abilities. “Recently we worked on several projects such as Indian Embassy Complex in Kathmandu, the residential and hostels at IIT Kanpur, Indian Temple in China, and they are all compliant to disabled people,” says architect Kshitij Jain, founder Akshaya Jain & Associates. He talks of features such as toilets for the disabled, entry ramps, sufficiently wide openings, bed lifts, unobstructed and logical layouts as a must have in each of his projects.
However, the fact remains that this still remains the preserve of the premium real estate and plush spaces.
Luxury residential has started responding albeit it’s still restricted to homes for senior citizens often doubling up as relevant for people with disabilities. “It can be overwhelming for people with disabilities to think about moving,” says Amit Goyal, CEO India Sotheby’s International Realty who helps find the right home for their client with disability with “extra planning, research, time, diplomacy and a little extra heart.” He adds that there is a growing sensitization among developers in India to adapt to the needs of clients with disabilities and they are designing and adding fittings which enable people with disability or the ageing population to live independently.
Finally, the hallmark of any building’s success is when it can be used comfortably and safely accessed, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. And, as far as possible without any special assistance.