Updated: 23 April 2022 with link to Deccan Herald article on access to public spaces. Public places should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical disabilities. This is part of everyone’s geographical rights. Here is a geographical perspective on the rights of people with disabilities … The Plank Man’s geography. You should never think of geography the same way again!
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly and implicitly recognizes everyone’s geographical rights. All rights are exercised in the context of place. People have the right to freely move in public spaces, to live in a place of their choice, to migrate in search of better opportunities, etc. (Yes, like all rights, these also carry responsibilities with them.)
By these geographical rights, we use certain places every day. For example, we go to school, the corner shop to buy that chewing gum, the office, the place of worship, etc. Each of us has a different set of such places we use more or less daily. Geographers call this collection of places “activity space” or “action space.” This space is a mixture of “public spaces” (roads, temple, post office, etc.) and “private spaces” (our homes, offices, etc.)
The exact set of places we visit depends on many factors such as age, gender, economic status, education, and physical ability. Those who are employed go to work places. Students go to educational places. Shoppers go to shops. Worshipers go to places of worship. What we DO helps shape our activity space.
But what we DO is based on other factors. For example, age. Little babies are not capable of going around much on their own. Their geography is confined to where the grown-ups take them. A teenager is allowed to go to more places, and so on.
Remember: to build your activity space, you must be physically able to move around. If you are physically disabled, building your activity space may become very difficult, making it considerably smaller and may even deny you access to places you need.
The Plank Man
I sometimes see an elderly, poor man on KH Road, Bangalore going uphill towards Lal Bagh, on a small plank (about 2ft. x 2ft.) which has four wheels. I don’t know his name. I think of him as The Plank Man. He sits on his plank and propels himself by pushing on the road with his hands. He has no legs. He travels on this plank amid high-speed, high-density traffic.
Here is his route shown on a Google Earth image (all links will open in new window/tab):
This is what he faces on the road:
He cannot use the sidewalk (“footpath”) because most sidewalks are like this:
He has no choice but to be on the road with the motorized vehicles. He has a “lane” about 8 or 9 inches wide on which he pushes himself facing oncoming traffic. It would take just one inattentive driver to cause him serious harm.Because of barriers on the road, he has to stick to one side of the road as far as possible. Medians are more formidable barriers for him.How does he manage it when he has to go the toilet? He has to find a place where he cannot be seen relieving himself. On his route round the eastern side of Lal Bagh, Bangalore’s botanic garden, there is a pay-and-use toilet. I asked the manager there and he knew The Plank Man.
The manager told me that whoever is there helps The Plank Man off the plank and into the toilet and once inside, he slides off the plank, along the floor and into the cubicle to use the squatting-style commode inside. They don’t charge him anything for using the toilet.
The Plank Man’s geographical rights are only partially protected. People who care have helped him with a plank that has wheels. At the toilet, kind people help him overcome the barriers that confront him. These are helpful, yes, but harms his personal dignity.
Addressing the issues of geographical rights of the disabled requires both the individual-level action (such as these nice people who help The Plank Man out) as well as systemic-level action. Laws need to be enacted and enforced to protect the geographical rights of ALL people, including those who are physically disabled.
A clarification: Why have I not included a picture of The Plank Man himself? Here’s why…
- I have only seen him sporadically while I (like him) was in the middle of very heavy and fairly fast traffic, usually on the opposite side of the road. I have been unable to establish contact with him. So far.
- Whenever I have seen him, I have never had my camera (a bulky SLR!) with me. So, I couldn’t photograph him.
- I am also not sure if I am comfortable with photographing him. I have so far felt that I shouldn’t. It seems unethical to photograph him in his condition for my writing… he doesn’t get anything out of it. What do you think?
Here are things you can do . . .
Watch a video (duration 6 minutes 27 seconds) about The Plank Man’s Geographies. (Remember to turn the sound on. Press “pause” and let the file buffer fully before playing.)
Think about these questions:
- How do our attitudes limit the geographies of those who have physical difficulties? (Give examples from your own observations.)
- How could our attitudes expand the geographies of those who have physical difficulties? (Give examples from your own observations.)
- Are there countries which protect the ‘Geography rights’ of people with disabilities? Are there similar laws at the State and Central level in India?
Resource for educators on “The Plank Man’s geography”
Curricular linkages: (you may make more)
- The nature of activity spaces and how different factors shape them.
- Geographic access as a human right.
- Civics, citizens, and geography – how they are interconnected.
- Conversion of linear measurements from one unit to another.
- Understanding of human rights, geographical rights in particular.
- The part of the government that is responsible for ensuring and maintaining geographical rights.
- Whom to approach regarding making spaces safe for disabled people. How to approach them.
- Speak or write about the topic from other perspectives; e.g.: lawyer, a disabled person (blind, deaf, etc.), friend, care-giver, etc.
- Use different forms (prose, poetry, script, etc.) to offer perspectives.
- Why should we care about the geographical rights of disabled people?
Originally published on 2 January 2010.