Visitability! What a lovely concept, and what a goal to strive for. I first heard the word from Subhash Vashishth at the Indian Building Code seminar but it’s been around since the 1980s and in common use among architects, designers and the disabled community in the UK and the US. The idea is that it should be possible for a physically disabled person to visit any friend’s home. It may sound radical but, like everything to do with universal design, it’s just common sense.

If we are serious about inclusion and if we recognize that any so-called “ability” is a temporary condition, we can easily understand how important it is for disabled people to have social lives – otherwise, what is the point of living?

When we built our house, we made sure to have ramps at both the front and side doors so that Moy Moy could come and go whether we were heading out through the gate or into the garden. Neither ramp was perfect (this was a long time before I started to think about universal design) but they worked pretty well. The bathroom worked too because Moy Moy (and eventually my mother-in-law) required full support and we designed it with that in mind. For an independent wheelchair user, though, it would be close to impossible to maneuver.

Young woman sitting in an adult stroller in a driveway

Our home has what I now see is “limited visitability.” Friends in wheelchairs can get inside to visit, which is better than nothing, but without an accessible toilet, they won’t want to stay very long. It’s easy to see the problem here, a problem which is replicated in every possible built environment in India, including hospitals, schools, 5-star hotels, railway stations, banks and just about every Disability Commissioner’s office I have ever visited.

Sign on an ATM apologizing for there not being a ramp

Visitability is yet another surprising feature of the Indian Building Code: in a country which is notoriously inaccessible we nevertheless have excellent mandatory features which architects and designers seem blissfully unaware of and builders have no intention of following anyway. At the moment, visitability applies only to public housing and mandates that in a high-rise apartment building, for example,  all units must have minimum universal design features which include a specific clear door width at the building’s main entrance and into the rooms, the kitchen and one toilet. In addition, a specified number of ground floor dwellings must be universally accessible, not just adhere to minimum standards.

Visitability takes inclusion beyond the utilitarian, barely-human provisions which are so common. Ok, ok, seems to be the grudging attitude: Here’s a ramp, but so steep it is too dangerous to use. Here’s a doorway your wheelchair can fit through, but just barely (watch those elbows!). Here’s an accessible toilet, but we keep it locked and no one knows where the key is. Here’s an aisle wheelchair for when you’ve been heroic enough to attempt a flight, but you can just sit there and wait till everyone else is long gone and someone finally remembers you need it to deplane.

Students in wheelchairs with others students on their feet

Visitability is so human, so friendly and so “extra mile” it almost seems like we just dreamed it. It’s obviously not a reality anywhere in the country, but is there someone deep in the inner sanctum of the Indian bureaucracy who wants it to be? Has someone tucked this visitability clause in an obscure corner of the National Building Code so that someone else can stumble on it and build a movement? This is not unprecedented in law.

The Right to Privacy, for example, which doesn’t even exist in the American Constitution, was successfully used in Griswold vs Connecticut to ensure that married couples in the US had the right to use contraception. In Bangladesh, rivers now have the same status as human beings and environmentalists are using the ruling to pass legislation to protect the environment. In both cases, the laws were passed in climates decidedly hostile to women’s rights and environmental protection. And yet, precedents were established and positive, remarkable change has occurred.

I just love the idea of visitability and see its quiet and subversive potential to sneak inclusion into our daily lives by a sideways route that will catch people by surprise. How clever they will feel when, inevitably, they or someone they love needs the features they may have reluctantly built into their own homes only because it was the law. There was a time when electricity was an uncommon luxury – now who can imagine living without it? There was a time when fire and earthquake safety features were optional; now we recognize their importance. The day will come when everyone will be able to visit anyone because, at last, we’ll all have homes meant for all of us.

We are born to go visiting! No one can be kept out forever!

Colourful group of children trying to open a large gate and come inside someone's garden



Showing 7 comments

    Visitability enables Visibility which paves way to strive for Inclusion in all spheres of life. Constitution mentions about Fundamental right to live and that too with Dignity. Will an Embracing community respecting inherent diversity remain Utopian ?

  • Peter

    Visitability is engrained in the standards. The front door, the entrance hall and the visitors toilet in all residential apartments all must be accessible. There are statements in the NBC that cover this but it is not so clearly stated.

    Since my wife has become more paralysed the issue of accessible toilets became more of an issue and slowly it became such that we lost touch with friends because there simply was nowhere we could meet up within public spaces or in their homes.

    • Jo

      I find this so painful, Peter. The exclusion extends to the entire family when a loved one is disabled. People can always come home, but it’s not the same. Everybody wants to get out and about. We had to make our own little accessible world for Moy Moy and my mother-in-law and it was never easy; plus maybe they wanted to get away from US sometimes!

  • Ketaki Bardalai

    Thanks for flagging this issue – Time to put ‘visitability’ on the agenda. I have come to realize the need for this as I have become my mother’s primary caregiver, and am unable to take her out to most public spaces.

    • Jo

      Thanks, Ketaki. Public spaces should ALL be fully accessible, no question. Visitability takes that idea further to encompass individual homes, as long as they are built by developers (apartment complexes and gated communities, for example). I hope one day it will become the rule in private homes too – just as fire codes and earthquake safety is seen as a public health issue, even in a home you build for yourself, visitability ensures at least the hope of mental health. Loneliness and “shut in syndrome” are huge risk factors for developing poor mental health.

  • Ritika Sahni

    So enjoy the way u write Jo.. and to be honest, at times, in my workshops, I so often quote from ur articles. Yet another imp aspect u have written, in a style which is accessible to all. Wish to meet you soon. Regards ritika

    • Jo

      Wow, what a compliment, Ritika! I would so love to meet you one day – so much to learn from you too!

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