ABHISHEK RAY

India,

Abhishek Ray is using the emerging genre of Universal Design to engage with builders, architects, city planners and citizen organizations to create inclusive and user-friendly environments that serve not only the special needs of the disabled but take into account the diverse needs of the general population.

This profile below was prepared when Abhishek Ray was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.

INTRODUCTION

Abhishek Ray is using the emerging genre of Universal Design to engage with builders, architects, city planners and citizen organizations to create inclusive and user-friendly environments that serve not only the special needs of the disabled but take into account the diverse needs of the general population.




THE NEW IDEA

With India in the midst of an infrastructure boom, Abhishek recognizes the need for a common design platform instead of piecemeal, expensive modifications made as an afterthought to comply with laws regarding access for persons with disability. He is shifting the orientation of builders and urban planners from the narrow concept of “disabled-friendly” architecture to the more inclusive platform of Universal Design. With most builders cutting corners on accessibility, Abhishek presents universal design as a cost-effective alternative by which everyone is served without exclusion. Simultaneously, Abhishek directs his efforts towards prominent government bodies such as courts of justice, national banks, railways and airports as well as citizen organizations catering to the disabled. 

Abhishek is creating an environment in which people with disabilities not only enjoy more access but are seen alongside others using the same facilities, instead of being segregated with special facilities for special needs. Abhishek says that the question is not one of acceptability but of accessibility. The disabled get left out of the mainstream because they are hardly visible. Once they are visible alongside the general populace, acceptability levels will rise and many more doors will open for them, including those leading to equal opportunities and employment.




THE PROBLEM

It is estimated that about six percent of India’s population is disabled. Medical advances have prolonged the longevity of those born with disabilities as well as those temporarily or permanently disabled by illness or accidents. Meanwhile, the definition of disability is expanding. For most of us, disability used to mean blindness or being confined to a wheelchair. But today, the World Health Organization is reclassifying disability in a way that emphasizes functional status and can include disabilities due to chronic health problems—like arthritis, heart disease, back problems—which that impact function. In short, anyone can be disabled, at any time.

Therefore the whole approach to “access” needs to be overhauled. It’s no longer about designing buildings for “normal” people, and then making some changes so that a few disabled people can use them too. It is not just the disabled who need a barrier-free environment; the need now is to design products, environments, and communications that accommodate the widest possible spectrum of users—this is the concept of Universal Design. It accommodates people with permanent or temporary disabilities, senior citizens, children, and others who are non-average. A ramp with handrails is as much of a convenience for a senior citizen with weak knees or a pregnant woman as for a person with disability; and a toilet large enough to accommodate a wheel chair is equally useful for a young mother with nowhere to park a baby carriage safely while she uses the facility. However universal design as a concept remains unexplored in India despite tremendous growth in the building industry and the demand for international standards of construction. Little effort has been made to introduce it to architecture schools and there are very few opportunities for planners to experiment with all-inclusive design.

On the legal front, the “People with Disabilities Act” of 1995 lays down limited requirements of accessible design but has gaping holes in its implementation. A major loophole in the Act is a clause which allows authorities to incorporate accessibility solutions only if deemed economically feasible. Thus most public spaces—including government premises—still remain out-of-bounds for the disabled.




THE STRATEGY

Abhishek’s organization, Disability Research and Design Foundation (DRDF), works with commercial developers, policymakers, the design fraternity as well as citizen organizations to popularize the concept of design-for-all. Set up in 2004, DRDF is designed to be a platform where engineers, designers, activists and even medical professionals can connect and work jointly towards bringing about social change through participatory approaches.

When approaching commercial real-estate developers Abhishek’s highlights the marketability and revenue-earning potential of universal design. He has taken his idea to malls, retail stores, multiplexes and other commercial spaces with projections of revenue if the hitherto excluded six percent of the population are able to access these facilities. Shopping malls and cinema theaters, governed strongly by the number of “footfalls” they receive every day, are easily persuaded to make their premises universally accessible. Abhishek has worked closely with the countrywide department store chain “Shoppers’ Stop” and the popular InOrbit Mall to make their stores universal in design.

Abhishek’s association with ADAPT, the “accessibility rights” arm of the Spastic Society of India, as a student volunteer taught him that advocacy needs to be coupled with design solutions to have real impact. He collaborates with a disability rights activist from the nationwide Human Rights Law Network to access design opportunities and presents solutions to the concerned stakeholders. Abhishek chooses to work with prominent government bodies as well as public premises; for instance, the High Court of India was not designed to be disabled-friendly and as a heritage building, its architecture could not be altered. Abhishek not only convinced the authorities of their social responsibility, but also presented a low-cost solution by way of a portable hydraulic levitator that could lift wheelchairs. These inexpensive devices, usually used to lift goods at warehouses, had never been redesigned before to assist people with disabilities. Presented with an easy solution, the High Court agreed to install it, followed by the Reserve Bank of India (the country’s apex bank).

In collaboration with other organizations, Abhishek conducts accessibility audits of public buildings and spaces. Capitalizing on the fact that airports all over India are being revamped or new ones being built, Abhishek is advocating for a reorientation of these spaces. He has recently put together a manual on guidelines for the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and redesigned numerous public toilets in Mumbai. His work with HOSMAC—designers of hotels and hospitals—has brought about changes in the new multi-specialty Wokhardt hospital in Mumbai while a hospital set up by one of the biggest corporate groups in the country—Godrej—has incorporated the principles of universal design. Abhishek is also developing designs for indigenously-built accessible hospital furniture.

Abhishek falls back upon his training as an architect to bridge the divide between technology and affordable solutions by developing indigenous low-cost assistive products and designs. With the help of a mechanical engineer he redesigned Sadhana Village, a residential facility for disabled children outside Pune, even including a swimming pool hoist adapted for disabled children. He has also designed the first accessible weekend retreat in Neral, Maharashtra.

Abhishek’s current passion is finding low-cost mobility solutions for the disabled. While there have been many efforts to help people develop and use “folk technologies” locally, there still is not a strong Indian industry that can produce and market affordable devices for the disabled to use. Abhishek has been experimenting with indigenously-manufactured, easily stored wheelchairs which can be sold at subsidized rates in rural areas. He is also collaborating with a Sri Lankan company to bring cars modified for the disabled to India. Abhishek recognizes that as a lone designer he can only bring about limited change—he is now orienting architecture and design schools to the concept of Universal Design. Working with the Pune School of Architecture, Abhishek has introduced changes in the curriculum by which students are encouraged to undertake inclusive design projects.

Since universal design remains a relatively new concept in the development and planning sectors, Abhishek realizes the importance of documentation and information dissemination. Therefore DRDF is developing an in-house facility that will produce short films and documentaries on best practices in universal design. His first film ‘Katha’ (Story) showcases the efforts of a community which rebuilt its life after the calamitous Gujarat earthquake of 2001 that made many people become paraplegics. As part of the jury for a universal design conference in Brazil, he had the opportunity to screen the film. His second production intends to document the efforts of a doctor who has devised a unique program to mainstream education for disabled children. Abhishek is also forging connections with international organizations like Adaptive Environments and Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality.




THE PERSON

Born to a doctor mother and textile engineer father, Abhishek’s formative years were deeply influenced by visits to old-age homes where his mother volunteered. His childhood passion was mechanics. A talented artist, Abhishek spent all his free time taking apart mechanical toys and then putting them back together or designing mechanical equipment on paper, sketching it with an obsessive eye to detail.

During his years as a student at the Rizvi College of Architecture in Mumbai, he was drawn towards people-centric architecture and worked on a number of projects linking architecture and industrial design to disability. His projects took him to the nearby slums and today he is a team member of the EU-commissioned program “How to Build Better Cities for People’ as part of the Millennium Development Goals. After graduation, Abhishek went back to his school as an associate professor where he successfully introduced changes in the curriculum. Soon after, he was invited by the Spastics Society of India in the capacity of an architect. This opened up a new realm for Abhishek to introduce Universal Design to the building industry.