Access and Safety in the Streets of Mumbai
By Elsa Marie DSilva
What is it like to navigate city streets? It largely depends on one’s gender and dis/ability.
A few years ago, my organisation Safecity partnered with Point of View on an initiative called “My Access”, which looked at safety and disability in Mumbai. Over a five-day period, we paired young women without disabilities with young women with hearing, visual and/or physical disabilities. Each day, the pairs would roll their wheelchairs or make their way down a street and assess the environment — pavements, streetlights, walkability, perception of safety — and would then discuss the challenges they faced. It was an illuminating exercise.
Across the board, all women felt unsafe in public spaces. They said they felt more comfortable in familiar areas near their homes or schools, or in private areas such as their homes or hostels. However, interesting inputs began to appear, and showed a difference between how women with disabilities experienced spaces in terms of safety when compared to their partners without disabilities.
For instance, women with visual disabilities spoke about their reliance on their walking sticks, and how their experience of a space was highly dependent on having it. They also spoke of feeling uncomfortable in spaces where there were only men, or where they could only hear male voices. They felt uncomfortable because if they needed any help, they were not sure they would be able to locate a woman, which was their preference. They also felt unsafe in spaces where they could not hear any voices at all as they would not be able locate help them if they needed it. Similarly, they reported that loud spaces could also cause confusion. For them, sound plays a vital role in determining whether a space is safe or not.
For women with physical disabilities, accessibility was a key factor to determine safety. Many spoke about how they did not access public spaces, especially when alone, due to lack of accessible infrastructure. In fact, many of them reported that their families did not allow them to travel or move around without another person accompanying them, which severely limited their autonomy. During the walks, most girls indicated in the feedback forms that they felt safe, but mentioned that it was safe because of the presence of a partner or the group they were part of. They mentioned that the time of day affected their feeling of safety, and that they felt safer during daylight. Many participants also reported feeling uncomfortable because of curious stares and comments by passers-by. Of this experience, one participant said: “they looked at us like we were from another planet”. These stares, curious glances and unwanted questions certainly make public spaces unwelcome to persons — especially women — with disabilities.
Overall, it would be safe to say that public spaces in city of Mumbai are not accessible for persons with disabilities. In all the areas audited over the five days, the footpaths were unusable, uneven and only a few accessible by wheelchair. Many of the participants also mentioned various obstacles on the footpath such as construction rubble, potted plants, garbage, kiosks and so on. Wheelchair users were forced to use the road and had to deal with the chaotic traffic.
In Mumbai, not only is there no infrastructure especially designed for persons with disabilities to access public spaces, but some infrastructure actually creates inaccessible spaces. For instance, barrier poles on footpaths or parked cars make footpaths and the sides of the road inaccessible. Traffic crossings did not take into account the needs of visually impaired people, for whom a red or green light might not be of any help, or those with physical disabilities, who need more time to cross intersections. There were no auditory signals available either. Garbage was also seen as a great obstacle, not only for hygiene purposes but also due to the fact that it may get stuck in a person’s wheelchair or make them slip if they could not see it.
Among the many things we learnt from this exercise was the fact that accessibility is not only a disability issue, but it is also related to women’s right to public spaces.
Over the five days My Access campaign, we learned a lot from our participants, both disabled and non-disabled. We learned to widen our approach to safety and accessibility and be more mindful of the needs of everyone. Before COVID-19, we ensured that our physical events had infrastructure that would enable the participation of people with disabilities and made sure they were well represented as audience members and speakers. During COVID-19, we have included technology that allows for ease of participation.
An accessible space is a safer place, and accessibility is not just a concern for persons with disabilities. Through this campaign we also sought to bridge the gap between disabled and non-disabled women and highlight our shared experiences to make better, safer spaces for all. We were glad to see friendships brewing throughout this campaign, greater appreciation for each other’s lived experience, as well as the understanding that all women had a right to access public spaces without fear of their safety.
About the author
ElsaMarie DSilva is the Founder and President of Red Dot Foundation Global (USA) and Red Dot Foundation (India), nonprofits that work on gender equality and justice. She is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow and can be found at @elsamariedsilva on Twitter and @elsamarie_ds on Instagram.