Ninad Vijay Pawar, aged 25, is quite the talker. In fact, it is so interesting to discuss anything with him that you kind of lose track of time when he starts chatting. This graduate of Wilson College, Mumbai is like any other young man you would meet, except that he is visually impaired. However when you see how independent he is, with all his day to day activities, you feel nothing but admiration for this gutsy young man. But then, as it is with most people with a disability, life can be very difficult sometimes. Like everybody else, he too wishes to travel and visit places of interest but he says that most public places in India are not geared to accommodate people with disabilities or special needs. So people like Ninad, despite their ability in disability are second rung citizens in a country that ranks low in understanding what ‘special needs ‘ are all about. And, like he says, bringing about this change is the need of the hour.
That is exactly where an organization called Access For All, spearheaded by the intrepid 30-year-old Siddhant Shah, a heritage architect, comes in, to make life a little better for people like Ninad. Shah’s organization AFA, works with the motto, design for disability and is responsible for making public places like museums and hotels and schools, etc., disabled-friendly.
They bring out BRAILLE handbooks to explain art to the visually impaired in art museums, create tactile paintings to bring art closer to people and children with special needs and also restructure building layouts to make them easily accessible and usable for people with disabilities.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Other work that they do, in their own words, is to push the boundaries of physical, intellectual and social access through innovative, indigenous design and advocacy while fostering an INCLUSIVE experiential culture. The team focuses on access audits, interpretation & educational activities, inclusive outreach programs, sensitization & awareness program, braille-tactile kits, braille books and CSR based engagement programs.
Says Ninad, “It has been a different learning method visiting art galleries with Mr Siddhant and his team because earlier something like this was not possible and nobody would have understood that despite being visually impaired, we also want to understand art and its beauty. Along with the special handbooks they make, they also narrate the whole history of art pieces that we go to see and allow us to experience tactile paintings that are made with materials like glass, sandpaper and embossings, to give us a feel of it. It was a great experience!”
And not just for the visually impaired, children and adults with special needs like autism, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Downs Syndrome, mentally retarded have all benefited from the Access For All experience curated by Siddhant Shah, 30, who has to date won numerous awards. The most recent being the Lions Club International Award for Developing Tactile Art Library For Dadar Blind School, in the year 2020. He is also the youngest recipient of the National Award (Mphasis Universal Design Award 2017) by the National Committee on Rights for People With Disabilities (NCRPD), the youngest and first awardee of MICROSOFT Nipman Foundation awards as ‘Enabler.’ He was also felicitated as Young Influencer, 39 under 39 by Mid Day.
Says Akanksha Ranade, Principal of Anandi Special School, in Mumbai, “I have kids with all kinds of special needs in my school and working with an organization like Shah’s AFA, has brought out a lot of latent talent in my children. They are learning to appreciate art and visits to such places are also rendered a wonderful experience instead of the challenging task it was earlier. After all, those with disabilities are no different from you and me; they have the same desires and dreams and not being able to visit public places because logistics are not in place, is hugely discriminatory to them. At least one organization is now trying to fill this gap for them.”
And for Shah, it all began 15 years ago when his mother, a special art educator for special needs children, was diagnosed with retinal degeneration and suddenly became partially blind. It was his firsthand experience of living with a disability that prompted him to start his venture with the mindset that instead of deprivation, access for all should be worked upon. “My mother could not visit heritage sites or travel like before. She had difficulty with the smallest of chores and became dependent on us for everything. It was a big blow to her as she was so independent earlier on,” says Shah, a Stavros Niarchos Scholar who finished his MA in Heritage Management from the University of Kent (Athens Campus, Greece) and his bachelors in Architecture (BSSA-NMIMS, India) along with a Postgraduate Diploma in Indian Aesthetics.
His personal difficulties with his mother prompted him to start Access For All, which is at present, working in collaboration and partnership with museums (National Museum, MSMS II Museum), historical sites (Jantar Mantar, City Palace Jaipur), monuments, foundations, art-galleries (DAG Modern), private
art collectors, art fairs and other cultural organizations. “The goal is simple; to make India, disabled friendly, with our small steps as currently there is a huge lack of understanding, infrastructure and sensitivity to the needs of the differently-abled. They deserve a life of dignity and access and for that, they need to be able to travel where they want to, visit whatever they want to and enjoy these experiences. My focus is on art and also other kinds of experiences that help them in sensory integration and give pleasure and joy, to their lives.”
He credits the time that he spent studying, in Greece and observing the museums’ inclusive planning as being responsible to help him create “experience-based prototypes” using the museum collection in India; to make the country’s culture-scape an inclusive one and create products and services for those with special needs.
Says his mother Aneesha Shah, “Life dealt me a blow but today when I see my son working so hard to bridge the gap between ability and inability, I think it has all fallen into place. It was destiny and I’m privileged that he used this experience as a learning and a stepping stone to something bigger; something that benefits society.”
On World Autism Day today, we cannot help but hope that more such crusaders will join the league for spearheading change in the life of people with special needs.
Salute to you, Siddhant!
You can see his website below if you want to be associated in any way in this noble endeavour.