Some of the participants at the Indian Building Code seminar were pretty angry. Many use wheelchairs to get around, one is blind and one was there inspired by his wife who is completely paralyzed (he also has hearing issues).

Yet the seminar was held in a training centre built by the Bureau of Indian Standards and surprise, surprise: it doesn’t conform to the National Building Code. No accessible washrooms, no designated spots for wheelchairs in the seminar room, no universal signage, slippery flooring, poor lighting, badly designed ramps and seats that flipped closed before you were fully upright.

The irony was staggering. This organization, after writing the actual book on non-negotiable standards for buildings in India, literally ignored most of them.

Some audience members in an auditorium. Man in the centre is holding his arms up as if measuring something and has a pissed off look on his face.


Circular cow gate with a padlockSo the audience was angry. Who wouldn’t be?

It reminded me of “Goodnight, Irene”, the old American folk song, and in particular this line: “Sometimes I take a great notion/ to jump into the river and drown.”  It’s how I so often felt when I couldn’t get Moy Moy into yet another hospital or train station; how Mummy must have felt when, age 99, she had to laboriously climb a set of broken marble stairs to the bank and then clamber through the metal gates so ubiquitous here for her “Proof of Life” certificate; or how we all feel when we take our children to the park and have to hoist them over the walls because the cow gates don’t admit their wheelchairs (and anyway, those cow gates are almost always locked).

You just feel like jumping into the nearest river.

But you don’t do it. Because the true “great notion” is universal design and like everything else worth having, no one is going to just give it to us. We have to fight for it.

In the United States, wounded veterans returning from World War II refused to just accept their new status as disabled people and sit quietly on the sidelines. They began to make demands for education, training and – crucially – access. It started with the smallest of things: a cut in the curb of a city sidewalk (those mini ramps you see on city sidewalks). The very first documented instance of an official curb cut was in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1945. But one curb ramp couldn’t spark the kind of sweeping change that the issue required.

It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that activists, by then fed up with begging and pleading, finally took matters into their own hands. Disabled individuals in Berkeley, California literally took sledge hammers and broke curbs down themselves. Then they poured their own cement to create makeshift curb ramps. The time was finally right. Everywhere in the country, old systems were being questioned as movements for free speech, non-violence, civil rights and women’s emancipation gathered strength. The simple logic of accessibility took hold and curb cuts became a standard feature of urban planning throughout the US.

And then, of course, everybody else realized how much easier their own lives became. Parents pushing prams, commuters with wheeled bags, kids on tricycles, people hauling heavy equipment – removing unnecessary obstruction is simply good design.

The beauty of India’s National Building Code is that it will make life 100% better for everyone. Design that works for everyone will work for you too – and not only right now, at this moment, when you may be fit and active and able to do everything for yourself. It’ll work when you are old and a bit creaky (like your grandparents are right now), when there is an emergency and you have to evacuate your building safely but  in a hurry,  when your arms are full and you need to open a door with your elbow, when you’re moving furniture and the doorway is wide enough to accommodate it and when you don’t slip and fall on your kitchen floor because it’s tiled with non-skid materials. That last one is something you’ll never even notice because it didn’t happen. That’s good design. Unobtrusive, never in your face. You only notice it when it isn’t there.

We notice bad design all the time: the door that opens on the wrong side, the seatbelt that doesn’t buckle smoothly, the light that won’t adjust to where your book is, the remote whose buttons are always sticking.

Slide with words explaining the seven principles of universal design

Architects and builders who don’t follow the Building Code are just making life unnecessarily difficult for everyone. Consumers who don’t know any better may be putting up with it now, but those days of ignorance are drawing swiftly to a close.

TIME’S UP for bad design. Latika’s new building is going to show the nation just what is possible when we follow our own rules.



Showing 7 comments
  • Anju Khanna

    It’s inspiring to see the growing awareness of accessibility considerations in design. By prioritizing inclusivity, we’re not just creating spaces, but opportunities for everyone to thrive. With each step towards greater accessibility, we’re building a more inclusive and equitable world for all. Keep the momentum going!

    • Jo

      Thanks, Anju! What an apt comment – universal design is exactly what you say: creating an environment where EVERYONE can thrive.

  • Peter Gibson

    Hahhha and Wow! Brutally honest. I mean absolutely brutally honest and yet so compassionate too!! I was flabbergasted reading this. I thought I was the rudely honest broker on these type of meets but Jo has totally upstaged me. In a nutshell. Well done Jo.

    But seriously. She is so right. Subhash often mentions cultural appropriate mitigations but over the years I have been given this cultural slap as if to say “you ferangis won’t understand that Indian wheelchair users PwD like to wash their hands after their toilet ablutions”. Again the brutal truth is that no amount of cultural sensitivity will provide “common sense” when it comes to understanding that some very small adjustments cost so little but benefits everyone so much.

    I have literally been lectured by a hotel owner who is an hotel industry “expert” in the field of accessibility whose own hotels are still inaccessible 5 years after politely drawing his attention to the shortfalls.

    The truth is that being an expert is like being a Raja. You get to lord it over others without lifting a finger to actually make sure that things are done. The crux of the matter is that the standard are 99% perfect and those who are supposed to enforce these at the planning permissions level are gorging themselves in the benefits of being the “gatekeeper” rather than fulfilling their legal and moral duty to reject non-compliant plans. Changing this one area of accountability would be the most powerful force for change but nobody is ready to tell the emperor the he isn’t wearing any clothes!

    So Jo, please set an example of what can be done. Non slip surfaces, PwD parking, step free routes, stairs that are well appointed with double handrails on both sides, Type A and Type B and Ambulant Toilets, 1,5mx 1.5m clear l-space lifts etc etc… I am dreaming of this Universal Design haven in the foothills!

    • Jo

      Whoa! I loved this response, Peter. It really is worth being angry about. Although retroactive adaptations are indeed expensive, time-consuming and messy DOING IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME is always an option and only marginally more expensive.

      But how does the additional cost even matter if it’s the LAW? No builder would say he could afford to make a two-story dwelling but couldn’t afford the staircase.


    Very apt summary Jo. I was equally perplexed at the irony at display at BIS premises. Standards are not meant to be showpieces and have their utilities only when implemented. Universal design embraces and empowers all leaving no one behind.

    • Jo

      Absolutely correct, Sudeep! And for the authority to ignore its own rules boggles the mind.

  • Aarti

    So proud of you Jo. We know, you will make this Universal Design a reality.
    Often a disability exists because the broader environment is inaccessible.

    A good design enables while a bad one disables!

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