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Accessibility in IIT Delhi – Special Issue: World Disability Day

A closer look at the experiences of PwD students in IIT Delhi and the role of the newly established Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Office of Accessible Education in enriching their lives on campus.

World Disability Day is celebrated across the globe on the 3rd of December to foster support for people with disability and promote a deeper understanding of their experiences and struggles. Many of us are fortunate enough to go through life without experiencing such limitations, which makes it even more integral for us to lend empathetic ears when they come forward to talk about their journey. IIT Delhi has a population of about 200 PwD students each year. It also has a newly established Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and an Office of Accessible Education (OAE), the orientation for which was held recently.

In this piece, BSP tries to delve deeper into the lives of people with disabilities living on campus and the accessibility provided to them by the university. We at BSP covered the orientation and get-together of the OAE and talked to Dean ODI and Faculty Advisor PwD. We inquired about their respective undertakings concerning alleviating the issues faced by these students. We also approached the students themselves, who were willing to contribute to the discussion and help us gather a myriad of opinions and perspectives about their journey with IIT Delhi.

A growing mindset, enriched with inclusivity and awareness, has helped advance the progress and growth of people with disabilities in society and on campus. However, several problems also came to light, which we hope will reach a greater spectrum of the IITD population through this article and change the general perception and understanding of disabilities.

The orientation and get-together

The orientation of the Office of Accessible Education, OAE, IIT Delhi, for the PwD students was held on November 27, 2022, in the Seminar Hall. This also served as a meet-up for the students as they shared their problems and experiences on campus.

Drishty Sharma, from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, ODI IIT Delhi, was the host of the event. Prof. Vikram Singh, the faculty advisor to OAE, introduced the staff- Amrita, Monu Kumar, Akhil, and Rakhi, all of whom work day and night to make the lives of the PwD students easier, followed by a brief note on the purpose of OAE. OAE was established under the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to create an accessible and friendly environment for everyone on the campus. It works to provide a healthy campus life and caters to the academic needs, examinations, placements, and more of the differently abled students. The OAE Office is situated behind SCOOPS and is accessible to all, and they soon plan to shift to the ground floor of LHC for improved accessibility.

Many faculty members who have actively contributed to making the campus more accessible and enhancing the lives of PwD students were also present at the get-together. These include Prof. Gourab Kar from the Department of Design, who has been extremely instrumental in helping with the infrastructure audits of the institute, and Prof. PVM Rao from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Design, who has helped design various assistive devices. Sarita Chand, the founder of Indic AI, an NGO that works to ensure placements for students with disabilities, was also present, and she motivated the students to take up jobs and placements. Her NGO has placed nearly 50 students in the past six months, and they also work to get scholarships for students at various colleges, including Ivy League colleges.

All the student bodies of the institute- SAC, BSW, BSP, BRCA and BSA were introduced to the students by secretaries and representatives, and discussions were held on how to make them more inclusive for the students. After the orientation, an informal discussion session was organized for the students, wherein they shared personal experiences from their stay at the institute. Deepak, an assistant professor at Motilal University and a student in the Humanities Department of IIT Delhi, motivated students to speak up and take charge of their lives. He is a resident of Zanskar Hostel and suffers from vision impairment, and many students look up to him as a mentor. He talked about how we are all “Temporarily Abled Bodies”, and that normal is different for everyone.

Different students spoke about the various obstacles they face in their daily lives. Those with hearing impairment reported a common issue: the speakers in LHC produce distorted voices, creating difficulties for them in understanding lectures. The introduction of masks during COVID also made lip-reading difficult for them. Other major issues that the students raised were the inaccessibility of the second floor of the library, the absence of braille script in the touch-sensitive lifts, and the accessibility of the washing machines for visually impaired students, amongst some other issues.

To find out more about the issues faced by the specially-abled students and hear a more personal account of their experiences at IIT Delhi, BSP approached some of the PwD students on campus.

Disability Awareness Week

The commencement of Disability Week 2022 was marked with a sensitisation camp put up by the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). The camp was about sensitising people about their peers with disabilities, and they chose to do so by making the onlookers experience their struggle and the underlying dysphoria and provide a glimpse into what their thoughts on generic things would be like on an everyday basis.

On December 2, interactive stalls were set up near Amul to educate the general public about the issues that specially-abled students face. In an institute known for its eminence in education, the OAE has to take emphatic measures to increase empathy in the student and faculty bodies.

The volunteers for the event set up a series called ‘Challenging Challenges’, where passers-by could participate in activities that test your sensory processing capacity—how well you are able to access any form of information with some hindrance attached—and highlight how those two minutes of inconvenience are someone’s daily routine, perhaps for a lifetime.

We all know we should not make fun of them but help them, yet only after experiencing their struggles can one relate better to them.

A sheet chock full of colours and pictures, while irritating to us on a regular day, is a daily struggle for those with autism. A blindfolded individual, even with a vibrating cane, struggled to walk a short distance conveniently. Mirrored handwriting, struggling with memorisation, stuttering in speech, and even having impaired hearing are issues that many face regularly, and the stalls compressed that experience into 2 minutes and gave people some food for thought. A badge advocating inclusivity was also distributed. Along with these activities, a few devices like braille and magnifying lenses were also on display.

The attempt here is to merely elevate awareness to improve the availability of resources for those who cannot access them as easily as others.

The problems faced by PwD students

We asked some students about the problems they faced on campus. Many concurred that as there are still few facilities available to accommodate the PwD students adequately, the problems begin even before enrollment. Some PwD students find it challenging to access campus buildings due to their layout and design, particularly the Lecture Halls and the hostels. “The Lecture Halls are too steep. Many hostels lack lifts. Those that are available are less spacious. It is often difficult to even enter the lift”, noted Dhananjay, an undergrad from the CSE department. He also emphasized how it is challenging to meet with friends in various hostels and attend lectures in the LHC because of the lack of accessibility.

Additionally, there is an unresolved communication gap between the professors and the teaching assistants, and the students. Thyagraj, a sophomore in the Production and Industrial Department, informed us of the same: “The lecture hall microphones produce sound at various frequencies. Some professors also wear masks when lecturing, lowering their sound volume by 5 to 6 decibels.” He further explained, “Programs in hearing aids amplify particular sounds in accordance with their volume and frequency. As a result, I frequently find myself unable to understand what the lecturer is saying because I cannot hear him speak or because other amplified background noises make it impossible to grasp what he is saying.”

Thyagraj further described that during the first year, when most of the coursework was completed online, he used to think that his issue was primarily individualistic. “At first, I refrained from expressing my concerns because I hesitated to request extra accommodations. I only realized this was a widespread problem once I spoke with other students in my third semester.”

Akashdeep, a PhD student in the CSE department, highlighted the difficulty in accessing the institute’s internet platforms. “I use a screen reader to use my laptop with ease. However, IITD websites like E-academics and Moodle cannot be accessed using the same, making it extremely difficult for me to submit anything on these portals.”

Interactions with the IITD Community

PwD students have a generally positive attitude toward student interaction. They find it relatively easy to communicate with their friends and classmates, who are generally kind and accommodating. However, there are still places that require more effort.

“The problem with the IITD student community is that they are highly unaware,” observed Akashdeep. He added that even the most basic extracurricular activities and college festivals exhibit this ignorance.

Many club activities are inaccessible to PwD students because of the skill set demanded. People with hearing impairment, for example, find it difficult to communicate offline in large groups and avoid activities that require them to pay close attention to what others are saying. “There is a high chance of misinterpretation, and with it comes the fear of being sidelined, so I just avoid participating in such events,” explained Thyagraj. Various sports activities also don’t include people with disabilities, and even small details, like the timings of college events, matter since they are typically held at night, making them inaccessible to those with vision impairments.

Literature PhD student Deepak Kumar explained to BSP the need for sensitizing students regarding the terminologies used to address PwD students. Even if the IITD group does not discriminate, their terminology might. Deepak shed light on this frequently disregarded topic. “The disabled are commonly referred to as ‘divyang’, ‘specially-abled’, or ‘differently abled’. These terms are problematic as they tend to attribute some special abilities to the disability, differentiating such people from the perception of ‘normal.’ Terms like ‘visually impaired’ are better, as they acknowledge the disability.”

There, however, is a sense of pity for PwD students that the community does not find motivating. Interacting with someone only as someone who needs help or assistance ends up making that person uncomfortable and reclusive. It also contributes to the hesitation of many PwD students to express their worries. “There is a need to break this notion that a disabled person only needs help,” Deepak noted. “We enjoy the same things, such as relationships, movies, chilling out, just that our methods are different.”

“Sensitive and sensible wording towards the people being addressed to, directly or indirectly, is required,” explained Deepak. But that rarely seems to be the case. In some instances, TAs address students under the assumption that they are not PwD and unintentionally hurt their sentiments. “Hearing loss is a disability that is not immediately apparent. I’ve sometimes asked the TAs, unaware of my disability, to repeat instructions, and they have replied, “Can’t you hear?” It stings, even if it isn’t deliberate,” expressed Thyagraj.

Our conversation with Dean ODI and Faculty Advisor PwD

We use PowerPoints, and we say things like, “As you can see”, we speak to students and say, “Can’t you hear me?” or “Everybody who wants this, raise your hand.” This is all extremely privileged, ableist vocabulary.

We at BSP spoke to Professor Angelie Multani, Dean ODI and Professor Vikram Singh, Faculty Advisor OAE, to gain a deeper insight into the vision that guides the OAE and the primary challenges they are currently facing. The following summarises all the critical lessons and takeaways from the extremely thought-provoking conversation with the professors.

Did you know that the construction metrics on our campus, like the height of the shelves in the hostels, are all standard as per the appropriate metrics for able-bodied men? Or that the parking spaces reserved for people with disabilities are almost always occupied by others? Why does the concept of equity and inclusion appear as a follow-up question and not as an elementary discourse that guides our infrastructure and decision-making? It is vital to have accessible routes to central places on campus and provide convenient living spaces for all. Accessible education is a top priority, and focus is being given to technologies like screen readers, text-to-speech software, assistive hearing aids, and wheelchairs.

This material assistance, although crucial and transformative, is the first of many requirements to increase awareness and sensitisation on campus. Take, for instance, the fact that the 2018 agenda to build a ramp up to the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs remains unaccomplished. Or that none of the college festivals you’ve been to have recognised inclusivity or equity for students with disabilities. Or that, while compensatory time and more accessible document features are provided, our lectures are still conducted with the presumptuous supposition of complete visibility, audibility, and understanding. Visibility itself is a very ableist concept in the sense that we take it for granted and conduct our daily routines without sparing a thought to it. Disabilities are diverse, and disabilities are not always visible. There is much talk of equity and sensitivity. Yet, the pressures of our schedule, coupled with the rapidly closing elevator doors, enforce a sense of oblivious urgency that makes us neglect every single person beside us, whether they are standing, limping, or sitting in a wheelchair. When we can cut the line, we ignore the vivacious posters and our conscientious yearnings and do so. Obtaining CSR funding and mobilising support from existing bodies is difficult, but eventually, they will be the easier parts of the job. It is tough to reinvent and modify existing cultures. That is, essentially, the job.

It’s hilarious how our ignorance peaks, except when it concerns us. Consider the perpetual debate regarding the differential treatment of students based on their academic performance, which brings us back to the very restrained way we define and interpret ‘merit’. The initial months of the first year of engineering are spent rather hastily; we leap into the bubbling pot of entropy that surrounds our rank, our marks, and our estimations of our CGPA. The hierarchies of ‘machau’, ‘kholu’, ‘dhakkan’ are irreversibly impregnated in our brains. We wish to be different, yet we also want to blend into the community to a certain extent because no student wants to be picked out. Identity and stigmatisation have become very convoluted, significantly aided by our insecurities. It is safe to argue that a lot of the differential treatment of students with disabilities arises from a sense of justice or fairness.

Regarding fairness, a very interesting perspective on this would be to spend a few hours with one lesser, undervalued comfort and judge if there was any discrepancy in who worked harder or spent more hours studying. The lesson of extending one’s judgement of oneself beyond numerical parameters and understanding that one’s value to this society extends beyond one’s ability to solve a given set of scientific problems on one day is a lesson that must be actualised by the entire community. The passion for striving for equity and equality must circumvent the thought process of equalising everything else in the past and bearing hostilities that limit one’s own life.

Infrastructure, recreation, and mindset: these are the three key elements that guide the OAE. It is an extremely important office in the sense that it achieves a representation of identity instead of a representation of individuals. The responsibilities it must grapple with are varied and huge because it must work towards restructuring and reinvigorating many systemic and ideological flaws that we mistake for normal ways of living. The dream is to achieve an inclusive, sensitised, and advocative campus culture that eliminates the need for the Office. The dream is to literally take for granted today what we fail to recognise and to be able to live, breathe, and innovate without asking the two questions, “Will I be able to? Will they let me?” The Office of Accessible Education will be truly successful the day there is no separation in the community between ability and disability, but instead an acceptance and celebration of all identities.

When asked about whether empathy or sympathy will guide the outlook of the ODI, Professor Multani responded by saying, ”We’re not reaching out and saying, “Let us help you.” This is our responsibility. At the very least, it’s an obligation.”

Concluding Remarks

At this critical juncture in history, when we value and support inclusivity and diversity, we must create a welcoming and understanding environment for our PwD friends. The Office of Accessible Education and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion have been established to ensure that IIT Delhi is aware and sensitised, and that appropriate measures are taken to support the people with disability. A vivid and exhaustive orientation was held where students were familiarised with student boards like BSW, BRCA, BSP, and BSA. Everybody at these offices strives to develop an environment where equality is not a peripheral thought but an idea that drives and influences our lives and decisions. While some efforts have been made to make the daily lives of PwD students at IIT Delhi easier, many problems still need to be addressed, and there is a long way to go. We hope that the newly established offices succeed in making IIT Delhi a safe and accessible workplace for all students.

Written By: Aanya Khurana, Abhinava Anwesha Mohanty, Anoushka Jain, Ayush Agarwal, Basil Labib, Gauri Agarwal, Md Faizan Raza, Shreya Gupta, Unnati Goyal, Vanya Kishore, Eshita Jain Graphics By: Ayush Gupta, Dhruv Jindal

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