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Conservationists all around the country do their very best to highlight and preserve India’s priceless heritage, for it to be experienced. But is this experience really accessible to everyone? What about those with special needs? Siddhant Shah dreamt of the day it could be accessible to all and then went ahead to make it so. In initiating Access for ALL, he intended to make India’s culture, and eventually all of India, accessible to all.
Sensory Experiences is a series usually about sensorily stimulating designs and installations, however, CQ attempts a fresh perspective, as this narrative brings to you design that is sensorily inclusive as well. In conversation with Siddhant Shah, the founder of Access for ALL, we discover the sensory experiences that take a step forward in making India truly accessible.
Studying Heritage Management in Greece exposed Siddhant to the vast possibilities of accessible or universal design – design that can be eminently experienced by everyone, including the differently-abled. Furthermore, his mother’s partial sightedness prompted him to take notice of the lack of aid available in India for the people in need, be it the differently-abled or illiterate. These realisations led Siddhant to use his architectural knowledge and sensitivity to the needs of the specially-abled to create Access for ALL, an organisation that strives to make India accessible for all.
Siddhant Shah journeyed to Greece on a scholarship to pursue a Master's degree in Heritage Management. Vastly different from heritage conservation, heritage management taught Siddhant to deal with the finances, branding, marketing and the behind-the-scenes of heritage sites, with the key idea of making these sites more within the reach of the majority of the public. In his undertaking, Siddhant was exposed to the various museums in Greece that had an extraordinary amount of assistance available for people in need.
Furthermore, partaking and winning a competition by the UNESCO and ASI that aims to make World Heritage Sites in India accessible to people with disabilities, strengthened his understanding of their requirements, and catalysed him to initiate Access for ALL.
Although Access for ALL primarily focuses on heritage sites and museums, the greater aim of making all spaces accessible through architectural and design interventions still stands, as they extend their portfolio of work to hotels, schools, art fairs, exhibitions, and audit, research and workshops.
Siddhant’s approach goes beyond just making buildings wheelchair friendly. Taking a more holistic route, Access for ALL designs for people with mental as well as physical disabilities.
He talks about the intricacies that go into designing for mental disabilities, citing an example of learning disorders, “We can’t use bright colours, so we go for muted colours, and we don’t make things jazzy, we tend to keep it simple, with bold, thick lines that are easier to perceive.”
India’s abundant wealth of heritage and culture seems to often get lost amidst the hustle of our lives, more so for those who are disadvantaged. One of the preliminary schemes of Access for ALL was to re-integrate heritage into the lives and minds of people, thus came about the task of making heritage sites, inclusive.
Aside from heritage sites, Siddhant Shah also works on schools, hotels, galleries and more, all emphasising heritage in some form or the other. For instance, designing for a school for the blind in New Delhi, Siddhant came up with a tactile wall showing 3 key monuments of India, along with a braille book and audio books.
One of Access for ALL’s first large-scale projects was making the City Palace of Jaipur inclusive. The procedure started with observing, auditing the palace, and running a basic audience profiling. Workshops were held with the palace team, blindfolding them, making them use wheelchairs, thus assessing the level of assistance required at the site, as well as making the crew aware of these needs.
The idea, for the City Palace was to make the site not only wheelchair accessible, but also local-friendly. The artwork and paintings were reproduced in tactile forms. The materials used in each of these representations depends on the nature of the artwork itself, for instance feathers were used in a painting of birds. Some of the artwork was recreated to have audio implants triggered at touch.
Siddhant Shah, not only designs the environment, but also creates the tactile representations himself. Explaining this, he says, “I learnt about tactile reproductions during my volunteer work in Greece with museums. Eventually, I developed my own style, incorporating braille and other techniques into it.”
Siddhant says although he would love to create spaces specifically for the mentally and physically challenged in the future, his present work aims at making the existing, inclusive. Currently he has been working on the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, making the site accessible to the differently-abled. He also spoke in the Asia Pacific Regional Workshop and Conference on peace education, held in China, about the role and impact of inclusivity.
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