Prof. Gaurav Raheja , Kanika Bansal

India has been trying to address the challenges of disability inclusion ever since the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. Though it may not fit with the changing philosophies of Disability Inclusion, it was a wise attempt to understand the diverse needs of persons with disabilities and encourage their participation in socio- cultural aspects of society, write Prof. Gaurav Raheja from the Department of Architecture, IIT Roorkee and Kanika Bansal, Senior Project Associate – BASIIC Programme, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA).

India’s Participation in the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) has further strengthened the legal framework on Disability Inclusion. It has highlighted accessibility as a process to ensure equal access for persons with disabilities to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public in urban and rural areas. The provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and the launch of the Accessible Indian Campaign in 2015 have echoed the same, and further mainstreamed the ethos of universal access in building New India. As the RPwD Act completes its five years, the journey to mainstream universal accessibility in India has been indeed transformational.

The guidelines and standards provide the foundation for minimum space standards, suggest prescriptive ways for implementation for achieving accessibility in the built environment while providing enough flexibility to accommodate local and contextualised needs. They also make it easier for the integration of universal design elements in every stage of the project cycle from conceptualisation to tendering to implementation. Since 1995, there have been many documents determining the standards for the barrier-free environment including the CPWD Guidelines and standards for a barrier-free environment,1998; Harmonised Guidelines for barrier free environment for persons with disabilities and elderly, 2016; and National Building Code, 2016. The legal sanctity of Harmonised Guidelines, out of all the documents, has become strengthened by mandating it under the Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 also suggests the need for periodic revision of the guidelines and standards of universal accessibility in the built environment, transportation systems and information & communication systems to keep it updated with the upcoming trends and aspirations.


Although a lot has been done to mainstream disability inclusion, the focus has always been to create only barrier-free environments. The changing dynamics of the urban demographics has resulted in the global shift to the universal design approach. The percentage of the working population is increasing and independent living is becoming more prominent than ever, escalating the need for building cities to match the needs and aspirations of all citizens. This highlights the need for universal access that facilitates spaces that are accessible, usable, and convenient for everyone regardless of age or ability. Treated as a requirement to facilitate persons with disabilities, universal accessibility equally benefits persons without disabilities – imagine a person with luggage or a couple with a toddler in a baby pram walking up to their house on the upper floor in a building or a person with his arm fractured in an accident, would be equally benefited by universally designed spaces ensuring convenient and independent movement. Universal accessibility, therefore, supports social inclusion for not only people with disabilities but persons with temporary disabilities, older people, children, parents with infants and toddlers, pregnant women, etc. It is important to realise that universal accessibility benefits all and is imperative for inclusive Indian urban futures.

Accessibility is best promoted by intertwining the principle of universal design into both top-down and bottom-up approaches. The concept of universal design is not a style but rather an orientation to design and shall be followed throughout the design process for each element of urban development. This requires a change in perception, ensuring public awareness of the mutual benefits of accessibility and periodic evaluation and assessment, analysing existing standards and programmes and conducting an adequate assessment of whether, and in what context, they serve their purpose. One such attempt had been carried up by the Building Accessible, Safe and Inclusive Indian Cities (BASIIC) programme, National Institute of Urban Affairs and Department of Architecture, Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, of revamping the Harmonised guidelines, with the support from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA).

The revised document takes the leap from barrier-free approach to universal design approach as well as presents India’s story and vision of an inclusive urban future. It includes contextualised examples & illustrations, accessibility needs of diverse user groups including persons with different disabilities, and a simplified accessibility evaluation system. The document aims to ensure accessibility is perceived as a holistic process and experience rather than just a building. The revised guidelines are formulated on five pillars – Human- centric, Universal Accessibility, Equity and Inclusion, Safety and Participation. It envisions disability as diversities and interlinks the day-to-day accessibility needs of different user groups to various design elements. The inclusion of marginalised groups is considered in both thought and process. Opinions and aspirations of these groups are captured through perception surveys, public consultations and engagement with domain experts, at different stages.

Universal Accessibility

It is often debated that “Accessibility is more about compliance than standards”. When perceived as a compliance issue, accessibility has often been viewed as an expense in providing and maintaining or outsourcing operations facilities and services, rather than as a necessary investment in infrastructure that would eventually enhance and expand opportunities for all persons. While this shift in perception is slowly taking shape at the international level, more needs to be done to cement accessibility as a core development objective. It is essential to understand that with just 1 per cent of additional cost, the huge investments going into the development of city infrastructure, can be made accessible for all. However, this requires a considerable change in the institutional frameworks & project formulation systems to include standard-setting involving systems for assurance and evaluation as well as making capacity building of urban practitioners an integral part of the city development. Innovative use of checklists, models and toolkits from the comprehensive guidelines should be made available to simplify implementation.


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