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Hi, my name is George Abraham and welcome to Eyeway Conversations. My guest today is Siddhant Shah, from Mumbai. He is an architect. Hi Siddhant, welcome!
Hi, George, thank you so much.
So Siddhant, you're an architect, that's an interesting profession when it comes to people with vision impairment. So what exactly are you specialized in?
So, George, yes, my profession is Architecture. And I did my Master's in Heritage Management with the focus on making cultural and heritage sites, monuments accessible for persons with disability. And it is post that in between where I was diagnosed with tunnelling vision. So I think my career came first and then my disability that I got to know about it, but I think, you know, it is an interesting career choice because it allows you to understand how space plays an important role in our day to day life, and how there is need to make it more inclusive and accessible.
What actually prompted you to be interested in this area? Because the diagnosis came later, right?
Yes, the diagnosis came later. But my prompt into the space was two things. One was that my mother was detected with an eye condition that has now like reached a level where she has only 30 person vision, distorted vision. And it was that that really made me look at space planning, understanding elements of universal design, because sadly, in architecture, we are not taught much about it. And not much recognition is given into this particular element. Because it is always treated as an elective against like, you know, you could select landscaping, universal design or something else. But it really pushed me to think about this particular space. And the second most important thing was because while I was in my final year of architecture, I had won a competition which was hosted by UNESCO and ASI, along with my two friends, Jaya and Siddique to create solutions for making World Heritage Sites in India disabled friendly. So these were two things that really got me excited, and got me to work in this particular domain of art, cultural heritage and accessibility.
This place where you learned architecture. Where was that and did you learn your heritage management also in the same institution, or organization or do you have to go somewhere else?
So I did my architecture from Mumbai, NMIMS University Balwant Sheth School of Architecture, and post that I received a fellowship to go and study in Greece. I went to Athens to study heritage management. And it was a dual university course that was hosted by University of Kent in UK, and Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece. And that's where I learned about this because I think Greece being the mecca of art, culture, heritage, you know, like it really was the place where one could understand and it was fantastic to see the considerations the way designs of site management of archaeological sites and monuments was considered keeping in mind persons with disability and their needs. And nowhere nowhere compromising on the idea of the heritage that was there. I think these elements really got me thinking about how to look at our spaces, look at cultural sights and monuments in an accessible way.
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When you finished with your postgraduate degree from Greece, you came back to India and what was your next venture?
So when I came back to India, I started working with the City Palace in Jaipur, to look at how can the palace and the museum be made more inclusive and accessible. Along with that, I was the Resource Consultant for the National Museum, under the aegis of Ministry of Culture, Government of India where they were creating with various other partners from IIT Delhi and other organizations. They were creating this tactile gallery, which is called Anubhav, a tactile gallery experience. So I was largely looking at the space through the lens of a Resource Consultant trying to play the role of a moderator between the museum and the other agencies and creating the space, and making sure that the facilities were provided. And also looking at elements of technology, like having transcripts online, having low tech guides, audio guides that were created in the space along with the tactile and Braille and other aspects for the Anubhav gallery. So that is what I started with and since then, we've been working with different art galleries, museums in India and abroad. And that led us to work in various other corporates, other organizations like schools, institutions as well.
With the advent of smartphones and the internet, have you actually also started bringing in an experience where when a blind person visits a monument, whether it's Ellora caves or whether it is the National Museum or goes to a fort, can the experience in terms of description be kind of generated through the technology?
Yes, so what we have started using is we have been creating these QR codes with the tactile plugs and the tactile Braille content that's there. And the QR code also has Braille, the audio description of the monument or of the room or the gallery that they are in, or even in some cases of the artwork which is there. The tactile description gives them an idea about the artists, about the artwork, breaking it down into different elements of qualities, mediums that it is used, what is the theme that it is depicting, and you know, what are the elements that are there, and we follow a simple process along, like, having the same QR code experience for sign language, as well. So these are smaller interventions. For children largely, during COVID, we started doing a lot of online engagement with regards to cultural heritage and monuments. And like talking to them about the ideas of our own city, or like, even looking at your own culture through the objects in your house and creating virtual experiences of a museum that they could experience so that's where, you know, sometimes it's interesting how architecture can come handy. We are trained in creating 3D virtual models, or the 3D virtual worlds, and we started creating them for like smaller museum setups, you know. We could create our own museums virtually. And that became an experience for children across the country, or like anywhere who had access to our link could be part of our workshops. And largely, we worked with you know, like schools that dealt with children on the spectrum or other learning disabilities so that they didn't have to go out anywhere, but they could still have the experience of our cultural heritage right in the comforts of their own home.
Accessibility, and, you know, the area of work that you are specializing in, is relatively new in the country and relatively unknown. So how do you actually find work? Do these outfits kind of approach you or you actually go out and kind of sell your services?
So George, I would say like, it was extremely difficult for us when we started, but I think we have a great support from the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum that promoted and helped us get in touch with various different government agencies and work with different museums. They played an important role initially but still, even today, we have to go out there, inform people, and it has now been seven years of whatAccess For All has been doing. And now people understand and they come to us to ask us, you know, if we could do access audit for them. So on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it's 6 and 6.5 projects that we write for, and we may get three or four out of it. And it's three projects, or two and a half projects that come to us, you know from the industry itself. Because also a lot of people there is this constant... it's a chicken and egg situation, sadly- when I, when I approach them, they were like, oh, but we don't have anybody coming in. And when you approach the community, and you know, that is where our audience research really helped us understand that the community has only one thing saying that, we would like to go there, but there is nothing for us over there in that space, like, there is no facility additional elements that we would need. So that is the thing. And we've realized that it is important to reach out to these museums. And because a person with disability is only disabled because of the lack of the infrastructure in the society. I think the infrastructure disable the person, services disable person, and if you have them in place, everybody can easily utilize things.
I was also intrigued to hear you say that you had support from the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum. How did that happen?
I think somewhere that I would say, was your serendipitous, and I think where this is where, you know, sometimes life gets more philosophical. It was actually like, I had just come back from Greece, and at the same time National Museum had proposed a plan for creating a gallery for a tactile gallery for the visually impaired groups and other persons with disability. And I was just in Delhi taking a Japanese friend who had come with me. And we have literally gone to see the museum, I had no idea that this museum is planning to do this. And I bumped into the curator, we got talking. And he's like you need to meet the person who is looking after the thing. They took me to the Director. And within three days, I was on board as a Resource Consultant for the project.
You mentioned that you do a lot of work in schools. Talk me through some of the stuff that you do in schools.
So for example, we work with schools to make the school premises accessible one and if the school wants to look at integrated solutions, how can they make the classroom space accessible. Also, we Access For All has two people who specialize in learning disability management and they look at teacher training programs, they look at curriculum development, also representation of inclusion in the curriculum, you know, how do they bring in the idea of diversity, accessibility disability in various different research and design and topics. So that way we look at we work with the school, aid them in different ways and also create we create tactile and Braille content, we create content in an easy to read format. We also create content in sign language and other formats for like those on the spectrum. So that way, we have been able to work with schools across the country based on the needs and the requirements that they've had.
I should have asked this in the beginning, but what is the vision for Access For All?
So for us, we are in our seventh year, and we are looking at our vision for 2030. As of now because the way we have seen Access For All also grow in a certain way and the kind of technological know how and the basic elements that we have created for us, we really would like to collaborate with other agencies, of course in India, but also take it to other economies that are similar to us in Asia and Southeast Asia, where we can make a deeper impact because when we started, we did not have a textbook to follow, we didn't have one particular guide to follow. But as we started doing things, as we started creating, making museums accessible, making monuments accessible, looking at classroom and also one thing that we feel that we excel in doing is working with low resources, because initially when we started we had extremely limited budgets, but we Access for All had to prove itself that you know, we were capable of making sure that accessibility could be looked at. And that also really helped us in fundraising capacities and writing grants and reaching out to people in different capacities for the organization. So we want to take this know how and and collaborate more with other similar organizations who are starting out or who are already there, and work with them, because India itself is a massive country. And secondly, as much as we would like to go outside of India, we also want to go deeper in the country and start looking at second tier and third tier cities, to see what are the facilities and elements that are brought into that space. Because one of the biggest talent, there is a lack of awareness, you know, and the social stigma that is associated with disability. So we really want to work towards that in. That's our immediate vision for 2030. And one more thing that we have started doing post COVID is that we have been working extensively on digital accessibility. So while we audit the physical space of a school or an organization or a museum, we've also started doing that for their websites, for their social media content, how can they start looking at making any digital engagement more inclusive and accessible. So this is where we are and we really hope to work in this domain. And while we're doing this, I want to continue to teach because I feel that most students who do that in different domains, we will be able to have individuals professionals who will start thinking in an inclusive way and you know, we may aim towards becoming, making our own country quite accessible.
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You know, you went to Greece 8 to 10 years ago to do this course. Now, you've been in India, working in India, but doing various projects in India. I believe there is a strong need, given the size and scale of this country for more people qualified to do the work you're doing and therefore, more architectural schools need to kind of maybe offer this program at a postgraduate level. Are you trying to do anything for that?
Recently, the governing body that works with architecture like Council of Architecture or like Indian Institute of Architects has been looking at like how they can bring in universal design. But as such, there is no specialization or a course that has been offered in any of these institutes I have personally written to various Deans of architecture colleges because architecture falls under this the TE category TE stands for Technical Education. I have written to some of the people there also. But sadly, this always is seen as something that's not like the need of the hour, which I feel is completely wrong. But we've been pushing for it, I had my opportunity of you know, teaching at NID which is the National Institute of Design and they have said that they would like to bring this more integrated into the curriculum rather than having this as an elective program. So I am hoping that we are able to bring in mainstream education of design and architecture.
The monuments which have been created hundreds of years ago only retrofitting can be done there. But the newer building, especially the buildings, which are potentially going to be monuments of tomorrow, I'm sure the accessibility features can definitely be brought in. Are there newer potential monuments that you have visited? Like for example, the statue of Sardar Patel in Gujarat, or some of the other monuments, future monuments. Have you seen the idea of accessibility being integrated into the designing process?
So I haven't been to the Statue of unity but what I have seen in newer monuments...So just recently, I was in Delhi and I went to the War Memorial, which is the National War Memorial. I think that space is brilliantly created in terms of considerations for persons with disability and considering universal design as elements in the space but sadly what happens is that these spaces are again like it's all about the wheelchair access or you will have some Braille plugs in one or two places. What we lack is an integrated solution or an integrated approach towards disability, inclusion and design, particularly for persons with different needs. The space that is there would have on ramp, it has certain elements, but they're all scattered there is no one complete thing that is there like it kind of just in different areas over there. So while of course there is a tick in the box, that ramp is available on site, and accessible toilet is available on site, there is no integrated solution that one can cater to and say that, okay, yeah, these are all the things that are put together. And, you know, it makes a complete experience for various different other group members.
When you talk about accessibility and inclusion, how important should dignity and safety be?
Definitely, dignity, safety and also, I think, as you were saying, one thing that we believe is that accessibility is also about the experience, you know and dignity and safety kit caters to that particular experience in a big, big way, like having a ramp, but you know, not having a handle and hence looking for somebody to take you down the ramp. Those aspects just becomes very, very difficult for a person. So in that order, I am completely on board with the two words that you use. The third word that I would like to add is experience. And these three things, make a person feel the way they are like they can go around on their own in that space, and experience it in their way, rather than being forced to experience in a way that would not be comfortable for them. So you know, I think one of the things is that having the availability of choice, you know. At an airport, you get a choice of using a flight of steps or an escalator or an elevator,you make the decision, right? Anybody who's coming to your space should have the luxury of making their own decisions.
As a final question, I'd like to ask you, is there a message that you'd like to give budding architects?
Three points for any designer, any architect or anyone you know, who's dealing with the space is that one, to always consider that accessibility while you're designing, it should not be considered as an option, you know, it needs to be considered as something that is mandatory, that is something that you do, it can't just be a virtue that you add in your design, oh, let me add one ramp, it can't be that approach. It has to be integrated. Second thing is you have to design for flexibility and agility that you know if somebody is going to use it at this particular height, or if somebody is going to have like a simple thing like I was amazed, George when I went to the Tate Modern Museum in UK, and in the washrooms they have a signage that says that we use non fragrant soap so that it doesn't affect anybody who could get triggered by and all factories. And so it is it is going to seem that level of detailing that goes in and that's something that I would like to add as a second comment is that accessibility requires detailing you know, there is a very famous thing in architecture that God is in the details. And it is literally when it comes to architecture and accessibility. Third is that, remember that accessibility is an incremental approach. One of the major mistakes that I've seen a lot of professionals from the industry or others also, who do that is that they want to do everything in just one goal. And that is something that I personally have, we personally are access for all fields, that is not the right approach. You need to break down every need and then start catering to one need at a time so that you create an incremental approach and meet the space that you're providing for in an inclusive way. Because otherwise, when you start with everything, you don't even cater to one particular need that isn't required. So yeah, I think these would be my three things, to any budding designer, anyone who's listening to our podcast, and that don't make accessibility of words, you make it a part of life, you know, it has to be something that's routine. And I'm sure together we can definitely make our spaces, our country and this world an inclusive space for everyone. Y
So on that note, let me thank you, Siddhant for taking the time and having this conversation. I wish you the very best.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
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