This interview was conducted on June 17, 2017 on the side of a workshop on gender and disability organized by Sruti Disability Rights Centre in Kolkata. At the time of the interview Prof. Mainak Ghosh was affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

The first part of the interview explained what the concept of ‘universal design’ means, its domains and its basis in the principles of ergonomics (how easy or difficult it is to use anything). The discussion emphasized that universal design is meant for everyone, everywhere, any time.

Continuing on its democratic essence, the concluding part of the interview talks about why universal design shouldn’t send prices of cars, shoes or even pavement tiles sky high, and the role each one of us has in pushing for universal design. Excerpts follow.

Cost of universal design

Pawan: There’s also a cost factor. Universal design shouldn’t mean something expensive. Rather it should be affordable for everyone.

Quote: We know that the capitalist world has always sold things like ‘green’, ‘solar power’, from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’ and even ‘safety’. These are buzzwords thanks to our whole breed of finance visionaries who come up with these kind of trends, and then it’s all about making money and business. But it will stop with awareness rising and the issue [of universal design] coming into the mainstream.Mainak: There are these funny myths about universal design and one of them is that it comes with a cost. It’s about a mindset again. Because we’re very accommodating, we feel we’re making something special. But you have to understand that this is a ‘cultural divide’ that we have in our brains. For example, take our footpaths. You get these special tactile tiles for people with visual disabilities, so that they can make out where they have to walk, where they have to stop and take a decision like crossing a road or entering a parking lot.

Now, these tiles are like chequered tiles. So when we make a pavement, we put tiles and a finishing material on top. Why not use these very tiles? You know why this cost factor is such hypocrisy? It’s because we’re coining it to be special. Why so at all! When we anyway have to put tiles, why not put the tactile ones? It won’t make you spend some extra money on top of it, so just use it so that many others are helped.

Pawan: Actually it would be a saving in the long run.

Mainak: Right, and who knows that today you have your eyes, but tomorrow you might land up with some kind of difficulty. So we have to have this kind of an outlook, and this will come into the picture very soon. In today’s capitalist and corporate world, they are harping on this concept of good design at a higher cost. Some company is making a shoe that is very comfortable, especially tailor made – you’re charged more for that. Why have such a situation at all! There are brands which take care of design issues and they feel that it’s anyway part of their job, it’s not like they should charge something extra. So I’m sure such thinking will flow into the mainstream with more awareness being built. And people like we all have certain amount of responsibility in creating such awareness.

We know that the capitalist world has always made use of such things, like ‘green’ was sold this way, ‘solar power’ was sold this way, from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’ was sold this way.

Pawan: Airbags in a car, which is about safety . . .

Mainak: Right, ‘safety’ is sold this way. So all these are buzzwords thanks to our whole breed of finance visionaries who come up with these kind of trends, and then it’s all about making money and business. But it will stop – I have this gut feeling – with the awareness of people rising and the issue coming into the mainstream.

This photograph shows the outside of the Cathedral Social Service – Cathedral Friendship Centre and Cathedral Relief Service located in the St. Paul’s Cathedral premises in Central Kolkata. The photograph makes for a pretty sight with brightly painted offices and signage of the organizations mentioned, and small but manicured lawns with potted plants, a bird bath and a few trees in front of the offices (the photograph is a daytime one). But the most significant part of the photograph is the presence of gently sloped ramps approaching the entrances of each of the offices. There is a courtyard space from where the ramps begin, and this space is also smoothly paved and clutter-free. Photo credit: Kaustav Manna

* * *

Universal design and you!

Pawan: Now that we have the new disability rights Act, you mentioned that it does talk about the issue of universal design. How effective do you think this is going to be?

Mainak: It’s a major leap. There was already an Act, but some major amendments have been done. Because it’s an Act, every citizen has the right to talk about universal design. It really does not discriminate between people with abilities and disabilities. Anyone can get into that domain and talk legally about it.

Second thing is that the Act has defined universal design which was lacking earlier. Any individual can raise a voice, can actually talk about something and gather weight around it. So we’re empowered now. For example, the RTI Act has been heavily used and it has its specific purposes. Similarly, this Act equips us and gives us strength.

What I would appeal to anyone who is reading this, at least in our small little domains that we have, we should raise a voice about universal design issues. We have to do very simple things. One is, I have talked about the three specific domains – physical, cognitive and behavioural or organizational – have a check list. You don’t have to look at others. Ask yourself: “Am I facing any difficulty?”

Sit down one fine evening with a cup of coffee and make a check list – am I facing any physical difficulties in my home or office, what kind of cognitive difficulties do I face generally, what kind of organizational difficulties am I facing? And then don’t restrict it to yourself; if you see something that is not very personal, talk about it. Write a blog, discuss with your friends, family members and colleagues. That is crucial because culturally we’re very accommodating, we really don’t look into these aspects seriously. We just go on adjusting and letting things be.

Pawan: And then also put it on fate.

Mainak: Yes, and the point you raised about maintenance – if you have done something, it doesn’t stop there. It has to grow with the pace of your abilities. So look at your life, have you changed things over the course of time? Have you made an effort to make your life better by making some adjustments? If not, please do it and even if you can’t do it, make a note of it. That will help you understand where you’re lagging. We’re by culture reluctant to document. But it’s for your own life, and then you’ll see many other people also relate to it. When you discuss politics, cricket and entertainment over a cup of coffee, why not this too?

The photograph shows one of the entrances (main gate) to the Maidan station of the Kolkata Metro Railway in Central Kolkata during the day time. The entrance has brightly coloured patterns and has reasonably clear blue and white signage; the surroundings are quite clean and green. The pathway to the gate is smooth and well maintained but does not have tactile tiles that would have helped people with visual disabilities to navigate their way. A man and a woman, holding hands and faced away from the camera, walk towards a small flight of stairs. But there is no ramp or gradient available for wheelchair users and easier climbing for people with physical disabilities. The inside of the entrance is brightly lit and has electronic signage, but the chairs meant for guards to keep watch and assist passengers are empty. Photo credit: Kaustav Manna

Pawan: Yes, and there is also a gender dimension to it. I mean people who have certain privileges will not realize that the design of some furniture or even the bathroom or toilet is not suitable for, say, women. So I think that also needs to be factored in.

Mainak: As I said that it cuts across the demographic – it cuts across gender and gender differences, sexual orientations, preferences, race, even your weight and height. I find it very funny when I see that it’s projected in a way that you’re doing a charity. I was going through an advertisement where they said special adjustments had been made for a pregnant woman in a company, and it was being glorified as if they were doing charity for pregnant women. This is not the correct way of portraying the issue.

You have to make adjustments, nothing doing about it. But look at the way you’re promoting. This isn’t a CSR activity. It’s about a right, a paradigm; it has to be done anyway. Maybe you’re showcasing an ad and making people aware, but this isn’t the right way. More than creating awareness, you’re creating a divide. I have seen that in many cases. That has happened in the case of sexuality – the more you talk about rights, the more it divides. It depends on how you’re portraying it. So it’s not a portrayal of your accommodating a gender issue, it has to be there anyway for an efficient living and livelihood condition, which cuts across your organization as well.

What are employees essentially? They are there to earn a good livelihood, which we all deserve as a matter of right. So don’t advertise in a way as if the accommodation is being done for a special purpose. It’s being done for yet another individual who could be different in some ways but who also deserves a better living.

Pawan: Thanks a lot for your time and insight.


Photo credits: Kaustav Manna