KAVITHA KRISHNAMOORTHY

India,

Kavitha Krishnamoorthy is creating India’s first “barrier-free” public play spaces that are inclusive to children with physical and developmental disabilities. Building on the strength of an empowered network of local communities taking ownership of these public play spaces, Kavitha is now advocating for a national policy to shift the paradigm of creating inclusive play spaces within existing public parks infrastructure.

This profile below was prepared when Kavitha Krishnamoorthy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

Kavitha Krishnamoorthy is creating India’s first “barrier-free” public play spaces that are inclusive to children with physical and developmental disabilities. Building on the strength of an empowered network of local communities taking ownership of these public play spaces, Kavitha is now advocating for a national policy to shift the paradigm of creating inclusive play spaces within existing public parks infrastructure.




THE NEW IDEA

Kavitha Krishnamoorthy has pioneered the concept of inclusive playgrounds in India to accommodate children with physical and developmental disabilities and secure their right to play alongside their peers without disabilities in public parks. 

By strategically intervening in public play spaces, Kavitha is enabling interactions between children with disability and those without in a public space during their formative years. In partnership with the architects, special educators, children with disability, and their caregivers, Kavitha transforms these parks into spaces that are sensitive to the needs of differently abled children. The redesigned playground not only helps develop key gross and fine motor skills in children but also makes them “visible” in the larger social context, thus normalizing their presence in public spaces. Through the unconscious act of play, a young child’s consciousness is embedded with the idea of a more inclusive world. Kavitha builds a supportive local community through a series of fun and creative events organized in these parks, which encourages caregivers/parents of disabled children to overcome their hesitation and embarrassment to let their children interact with the larger society. Thus, Kavitha is encouraging a culture of acceptance and a pattern for how empathetic public spaces within a city should work. 

Having transformed parks in Bangalore, Mangalore and Pune in partnership with local authorities and other partners, Kavitha is now drafting policy guidelines for inclusive playgrounds that will institutionalise this collaborative framework and design process in public infrastructure development. She simultaneously advocates with special schools and CSOs for the disabled to include the concept of inclusive play in their curriculum and activities.




THE PROBLEM

Urban spaces in India are not inherently designed to be inclusive. In most public spaces, a ramp or a toilet for special needs is an afterthought. This standard of planning extends to public playgrounds as well, where the current design paradigm does not provide for play equipment or access areas catering to the needs of special children. The task of designing and developing municipal parks is typically entrusted to horticulturists and engineers, whose expertise includes developing landscaped gardens but not child-friendly play environments within these public parks, let alone designing them to serve the needs of the differently-abled. As a result, these municipal officers are less incentivised to expand the scope of these play areas. Citizens too have become disengaged with the running of these local municipality parks, thus leading to the communities’ voice being absent from the management and strategic design of the play areas.

The lack of support structures in public spaces results in children with disabilities (approximately 35 per cent of all people living with disabilities in India) and their caregivers withholding from participation in society on equal terms. Moreover, the larger public, unused to sharing spaces with persons with different abilities, lacks understanding or empathy towards the differently-abled. This separation of children with disabilities from individuals without creates a social norm of segregation and exclusion that extends well beyond childhood.

This lack of physical infrastructure for children with disability is indicative of a societal pattern where differently-abled children have largely been confined to institutionalised areas, thus making them invisible from public discourse on developing urban infrastructure. Additionally, the current interventions in the field have focused primarily on treatment, awareness and skill building for individuals with disability through rigid instruction-based methods.  Play spaces offer immense opportunity to bridge this gap in society using play and create an institutional framework to transform public parks into inclusive spaces for the differently-abled.




THE STRATEGY

Through an iterative and consultative process, Kavitha has created a design framework for public parks to become both accessible and assimilative towards children with disability. She first consults differently-abled children and their caregivers to understand their needs from a playground. Using that as a first frame of reference, she collaborates with occupational therapists, disability experts, special trainers and architects to create prototypes for play equipment manufacturers to follow. For instance, a swing set is designed to have both bench seats and bucket seats. Similarly a concave slide is designed with higher handle bars to provide a sense of security for a differently-abled child. As a result, these playgrounds are not divided into regular and special zones—they are instead designed to provide an equal experience of play for all children. The play equipment (like tire-swings) also fulfills the essential function of developing necessary motor and sensory skills amongst disabled children, while providing a fun social experience. 

Kavitha has also influenced play equipment manufacturers to incorporate this universally-designed equipment into their catalogue. The manufacturers have now changed the basic designs of slides, swings, etc., to make them suitable for use by both children with disability and those without. 

Kavitha simultaneously lobbies with municipal corporators in the area to appoint local contractors and park officials to install the equipment and maintain these spaces. By making this play equipment universally applicable, she ensures that the municipal budget covers the cost of repairs and replacement (approximately $200 monthly), thus strategically making inclusive equipment a part of public playground infrastructure. Kavitha has further conducted trainings with park officials, horticulturalists and engineers on implementation and maintenance methods for the equipment, as well as to dispel their notions of these public parks as being areas meant only for “special” children. 

To build the confidence of differently-abled children, their parents, and caregivers to use these redesigned public spaces, Kavitha launched quarterly inclusive events like Families Day Out, where various “families with disabilities” can engage with each other, and develop the confidence to let their children play in open, public spaces. With frequent exposure, the children too move from fearing the space and the equipment, to using and enjoying it – then even requesting the experience. 

To ensure that this system runs efficiently in each playground, Kavitha appoints a local park coordinator who liaises with the special and regular schools, as well as with parents to bring their children out to play. The coordinator additionally reports any damage to the equipment and works with the local municipal authority to repair or replace it. Situating these events in parks also makes the general public, like other parents, passers-by and park officials more aware and empathetic about the needs of children with disability, and broadens their idea of who all can participate in a public space. 

Kili-Kili, the organisation founded by Kavitha, has formatted these early learnings into other programmes aimed at bridging the gap between differently-abled children and other children. Aided by volunteers, Kili-Kili brings together over 250 children every quarter from regular and special schools to play together. This platform, called the “Buddy Project,” is especially important for autisic children as it helps build their communication skills and adapt better to the larger world. It also helps sensitise children towards their peers with disability, and ultimately to eschew that difference to include them in their play. These platforms circumvent the moralising, one-sided power dynamic between individuals with disability and those without and gradually create a culture of empathy through actual demonstration of how public spaces can be inherently inclusive. This platform also focuses on bringing caregivers/mothers together to strengthen and better inform their responses to their differently-abled wards, and also helps them build an empathetic community amongst themselves. Kavitha leverages these events to build a supportive network of local citizens groups, volunteers, parents, CSOs and corporations to run and maintain these parks, and encourages community ownership over these public parks. 

Instead of targeting each park, and building systems within it from scratch, Kavitha is now institutionalising the concept of inclusive play by drafting policy guidelines for municipal authorities across the country. These guidelines detail the kind of play equipment needed and their uses across various disabilities, as well as an implementation framework for local groups to adopt Kili-Kili’s model of inclusion. Run through a public-private partnership, the guidelines emphasise the creation of a local coordination committee comprising of children, parents and residents, with statutory and monetary powers to maintain the play areas and establish different inclusivity programmes in the parks. The guidelines further evoke the role of the Ward Committee (to be constituted under the Nagar Palika or Local Council Act, 1992) as a liaison between the municipal government and the local coordination committee. Comprised of elected representatives, resident welfare associations, CSOs, and local park officials, the Ward Committee would be empowered to monitor, develop and maintain every play space in the ward, and disburse funds to the local committee for the day-to-day operations of the park. These guidelines aim at investing local groups with more power to effect changes, as well as make the municipal structures more accountable to the needs of differently abled citizens in their ward. 

To ensure that these policy guidelines become the mainstay in planning play spaces in public parks, Kavitha is now actively lobbying with candidates representing local political parties in the upcoming municipal elections in Bangalore. By incorporating the agenda of inclusive play spaces within their manifestoes, Kavitha is ensuring that these representatives understand and articulate the need for these integrated public arenas in their constituencies. She is simultaneously building links with the executive branch (the commissioner of the city municipality, joint commissioners, local park officials like engineers and horticulturists) to conduct zone-wise trainings and sensitization programmes to build capacity and knowledge of these officials to execute the policy guidelines when they come into effect. 

Outside the state machinery, Kavitha is targeting media campaigns and stories that reflect the aspirations of city-dwellers, and positions inclusive playgrounds as part of this vision for the holistic development of the city. She is leveraging this media opportunity to introduce the concept of inclusive play spaces in the larger civic discourse on how cities are being developed. 

Kili-Kili’s programmes have impacted over 4000 differently-abled and 2000 regular children, and created inclusive play spaces in Bangalore, Mumbai and Managlore. In the next three to five years, using the policy guidelines, Kavitha aims help in the transition of 10 more playspaces in Bangalore, and five more nationwide. Kavitha also continues to lobby with the national disability rights groups to incorporate the idea of inclusive playgrounds as a fundamental right for disabled children, and has recently submitted provisions to that effect for the new Persons with Disabilities Act.




THE PERSON

Kavitha was born and raised in Mumbai, and from an early age started volunteering with YUVA, an organisation that worked with underprivileged children and ran informal pavement schools. She joined YUVA full time from 1993 to 2000, and continued to evolve as a strong advocate for children’s rights through various roles in the organisation. As the Director of YUVA’s City Project, Kavitha ran and managed a team that carried out field interventions, advocacy and research on the rehabilitation of street children. She moved on to work at MAYA in Bangalore for their elementary education initiative across Karnataka, and contributed to the research and advocacy efforts for the organisation. 

Kavitha’s entrepreneurial journey began with a simple question: “Why were they no disabled children in public parks?” During visits to the park with her son, Ananth, who is autistic, she noticed that there were very few disabled children like him who shared spaces with their peers without disabilities. Moreover, she realized that for many disabled children, especially those with a developmental disability like autism, play was essential to build on their motor, sensory and social skills. Kavitha drew strength from the informal support group of parents, all of whom had the same challenges, and decided to start Kili-Kili as a citizen-based movement for the inclusion of differently-abled children in playgrounds, and other spheres of public life. 

Kavitha believes that it is her experience as a development professional that has allowed her to overcome her own challenges as a parent of an autistic child, and create a systematic intervention that will help many children like Ananth. Kili-Kili is thus a natural amalgamation of her personal struggles, experiences, and skills. In addition to running Kili-Kili, Kavitha has initiated a Creative Arts programme for children with autism at the Bubbles Centre for Autism in Bangalore, which aims to facilitate the creative expression of children with autism through visual arts. To extend the idea of creative arts as therapy, Kavitha has begun with music therapy classes for autistic children by establishing the Sampoorna school. Sampoorna provides a space for autistic adolescents once they outgrow the playground to continue to build upon their social responses. By involving musicians in these classes, Kavitha plans to create a new cadre of certified music therapists and entrench the idea of arts therapy for autism.