Inaccessible Cities: The experience of those with disabilities

Living with a disability can bring up many challenges — just getting around the city is one of them.

Former New York City Council candidate Rebecca Lamorte poses for a photo in New York City, New York, United States.
Former New York City Council candidate Rebecca Lamorte poses for a photo in New York City, New York, United States. [Photo/AJ Contrast]

One in seven people worldwide live with some form of disability and many of them face daily challenges that include just getting around. Al Jazeera’s innovation studio, AJ Contrast, tells the story of three women with different disabilities in Mumbai, Lagos, and New York City. In this episode, we speak with AJ Contrast Senior Producer Viktorija Mickute to learn more about these women and what can be done to make the world more accessible for all members of society.

In this episode: 

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Ruby Zaman with Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke, Ney Alvarez, Negin Owliaei, Chloe K Li and Malika Bilal. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Adam Abou-Gad and Aya Elmileik are our engagement producers.

Full episode transcription:

Malika Bilal: Nidhi Goyal is a woman of many talents and many accomplishments.

Nidhi Goyal: I’m the founder and executive director of an Indian nonprofit called Rising Flame. And I work as an advisor to UN women.

Malika Bilal: She’s also a standup comedian who uses humor to poke fun at another major part of her identity.

Nidhi Goyal: I’m blind, but so is love guys. Maybe you should get over it. (laugh)

Malika Bilal: Nidhi is visually impaired, and has made her disability a focus of her comedy.

Nidhi Goyal: There are such entertaining reactions to our disability that we just cannot help, but laugh, because the ultimate joke is on the people who don’t get it.

Malika Bilal: But she admits life’s not always funny. Especially when it comes to navigating a city as big as her hometown, Mumbai, while blind.

Nidhi Goyal: I am from India. I have been based out of Mumbai for most of my life. When that local train, as a disabled person, is inaccessible, what is that doing to the cost on my time?

Malika Bilal: One in seven people around the world has some form of disability. And many of them, like Nidhi, are living in some of the biggest cities in the world yet still face major obstacles.

What’s that like, and how can things be improved? That’s what one team of Al Jazeera journalists went to find out.

I’m Malika Bilal and this is The Take.

Viktorija Mickute: My name is Viktorija Mickute and I’m a senior producer at AJ Contrast, which is Al Jazeera digital’s media innovation studio.

Malika Bilal: AJ Contrast is like a documentary team, but way more advanced. They use tools like 360 cameras, augmented reality and interactive storytelling. They don’t just tell stories. They help you experience the stories, using immersive technologies. And we’ll get to more on that later. First, I want to start with what I think is one of their most fascinating projects to date – Inaccessible Cities.

Malika Bilal: So let’s dive right into Inaccessible Cities, which is an interactive feature that’s won lots of awards and for good reason. Can you tell me more about the project and where the idea came from?

Viktorija Mickute: Yeah. So we wanted to talk about people with disabilities as a community that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the mainstream media, and when we looked into it we wanted to focus on women because the majority in low and middle income countries in the world are actually women. So what struck us is that when we are thinking about these bustling centers of cultural life, financial, political worlds, we sometimes don’t think about how people with disabilities, whether it’s challenging for them to navigate, whether the cities are accessible for all, whether cities are created for all. And interestingly enough, we found a lot of things that surprised us.

Malika Bilal: Tell me about Nidhi Goyal. She’s one of the characters in your story. How did you get to know her?

Viktorija Mickute: For this project we wanted to find three women living with disabilities in these megacities, which is Mumbai, Lagos and New York City. So Nidhi, I found her as this super interesting woman, an advocate for disability rights, especially for women and youth. She uses comedy as a way to talk about her disability, about her gender as well. And, and when we started talking with her about the project, she was very excited and she had so many things to say about Mumbai.

Nidhi Goyal: I am, uh, India’s first female disabled, standup comedian. I always forget that…

Malika Bilal: Nidhi grew up in Mumbai. And lost her sight gradually as a teenager. So she remembers what her city looks like.

Nidhi Goyal: When I was 14 or 15 I was diagnosed with an irreversible incurable, degenerative, progressive eye disorder. So it’s very interesting because disability was a part of my life since my childhood.

Malika Bilal: And she’s had to adapt to the changes in her life.

Nidhi Goyal: When you start losing sight and whenever a disability is acquired, you basically have to relearn everything. So I relearned how to walk, how to read, how to write, how to see the world without seeing, um, how to identify colors without seeing, how to imagine, um, how to choose and many, many more things. So you’re swimming harder and harder. The waves get bigger and bigger.

Malika Bilal: And a lot of those waves – her obstacles – involve just getting around.

Nidhi Goyal: It was so challenging because today I could walk the same street and tomorrow I nearly stumbled into a ditch or I missed meeting with an accident by a couple of inches.

Malika Bilal: She talks about how she started to become aware of accessibility in a way she hadn’t been before. Her life changed. And so did her commute.

Nidhi Goyal: We have buses which are not accessible to people who have locomotor disabilities, who are using crutches, who have any kind of limb deformity, or limb disability who find it difficult to walk, to move around, who are wheelchair users. We are also not inclusive for people who live with blindness. They’re waiting at the bus stop and it’s not like you know which bus is approaching.

Malika Bilal: I asked Viktorija what struck her about Nidhi’s story?

Malika Bilal: As a blind woman, living in a busy mega city, like Mumbai. Nidhi has to get around on public transportation or on foot. And of course that comes with challenges. Were you surprised by what she has to do to get around?

Viktorija Mickute: Yeah, she’s fortunate enough that she can take a lot of taxis so that helps her a lot so she doesn’t need to always just rely on public transport. But while navigating the streets, while walking somewhere, to the let’s say a post office or something like that, one thing that really was interesting, what she said is that Mumbai is accessible because of people. Like in a way that people are really helpful. Like if you ask for help everybody will take your hand and, you know, show you, guide you to, to this I don’t know, bus station or something like that. But what she said, that actually takes away your agency and as a woman in the street, just let someone else guide you for example, a man or someone you don’t even know who.

Malika Bilal: Nidhi mentioned some of those issues.

Nidhi Goyal: I have to cross a street, which means I have to seek support from a stranger. Many women living with blindness will report that they have either been groped or harassed or pulled or had their agency taken away while a stranger is supporting them. All on the guise of at least we are helping you, right? Because you don’t have any other options. Your life is literally in that person’s hand.

Malika Bilal: Viktorija, you also talked to two other women in two completely different parts of the world. What can you tell me about them and how their experience was different from Nidhi’s?

Viktorija Mickute: So in New York City, we focused on Rebecca Lamorte. At that point, she was running for New York city council. One thing about Rebecca, is that she acquired this disability later in life.

Rebecca Lamorte: I have what’s called complex regional pain syndrome.

Malika Bilal: Rebecca was pushed on one of the New York subway trains and her injury was severe.

Rebecca Lamorte: And my leg was crushed in the gap between the train and the platform. I have permanent degenerative nerve damage and struggle with mobility. I struggle getting around our community and city and I’m running to change that for everyone. I’m running to fight for people that feel overlooked, unseen, and completely disregarded because of how inaccessible our community and city is.

Viktorija Mickute: And this was so important for us to explore as well because people with disability. It is a marginalized community that anybody can in their lifetime become a part of. Someone can develop disability due to illness, old age or anything like that or an accident, like what happened to Rebecca. What she always says is that she never thought about those things before she became disabled herself, and then her life and her just connection to the city completely changed. A quarter of the subway stations are inaccessible for people using wheelchairs. Talking to so many people living here in New York City and learning how frustrating it is. It like even evokes hopelessness, the fact that it’s just the system is not possible for you to use.

Malika Bilal: But the problem of inaccessibility is not unique to New York or Mumbai. Lagos, one of the largest cities in Africa, has a public transport system of taxis, motorbike taxis, and buses that are also not easy for people with disabilities to use.

Viktorija Mickute: So the third character of our story is Olajumoke Olajide, a professional athlete from Lagos, who is an African record holder in a wheelchair race.

Olajumuke Olajide: My disability is polio. I do sports for a living.

Malika Bilal: Olajumuke became disabled after contracting polio at a young age.

Olajumuke Olajide: My mother told me that I was sick and from then take me to hospital. And where they give me injection from that place. I’m like this, because of when I was, I think when I was six to seven, I’m like this.

Malika Bilal: It was as a disabled woman, that she became a star athlete using her wheelchair to compete. But using a wheelchair just to get around the city. That was still hard. Even as a champion.

Olajumuke Olajide: They will not wait for me or they will not have patience for me.

Viktorija Mickute: And she said, sometimes she used to wait you know, three buses, for someone to actually say like okay, I’m gonna help you, uh, to put your wheelchair on a bus and to help you board the bus as well.

Malika Bilal: Viktorija’s team spent about a week with Olajumuke and the other women in the piece to get a sense of their everyday lives and the people in them.

It’s through staying with those stories that you learned some sad news about Olajumuke. Can you tell us what happened?

Viktorija Mickute: So after the project was published in December 2021 several months later, we learned that Olajumuke passed away. The photographer who was documenting her story let us know that Olajumuke developed an illness due to bedsores.

Malika Bilal: Oh, no.

Viktorija Mickute: Yeah, losing her was really heartbreaking for everyone involved.

Malika Bilal: Aside from their disabilities, these three women do have another common thread, and that is that they are involved in advocacy work, to change things, to highlight the difficulties in accessing things like public transportation.

Nidhi Goyal: …issues around disability, and I use humor to have people reflect on their behaviors on the stigmas that they perpetuate on the stereotypes that they hold against people with disabilities.

Malika Bilal: Nidhi uses her comedy. She has her own NGO. Rebecca ran for office…

Rebecca Lamorte: Today New York City remains largely inaccessible. I’m running for New York City Council to change that.

Malika Bilal: …and Olajumuke used her athletics to challenge negative stereotypes and perceptions.

Olajumuke Olajide: I play tennis table. I train hard and I want to be the best.

Malika Bilal: Did you see that as a common thread? And how would you explain that?

Viktorija Mickute: Definitely. And it’s something we wanted to highlight the stories of women who are advocates. So the idea was not only focus on their disabilities as something that makes them different or take away their agency to do things. It’s also focusing on the things that they do in everyday lives and the ideas that they bring to the table and their spirit in terms of advocacy and actively doing something.

Malika Bilal: But it wasn’t enough for Viktorija and her team to simply share those stories. They opted to make them interactive. So people like you and I could get a sense for what life in these cities is really like for Nidhi, Rebecca and Olajumuke.

So I have pulled up Inaccessible Cities on my laptop, and I’m going to click start the experience, walk me through what the viewer will see.

Viktorija Mickute: We start the project with three women living with different disabilities.

Malika Bilal:  But when I’m looking at it – I only see their backs. We see the back of Rebecca crossing the street with her cane. Olajumuke in her wheelchair, going up a steep ramp. And someone helping Nidhi to cross the road. And that’s on purpose, Victoria says.

Viktorija Mickute: We don’t see their faces. We don’t learn about who they are and the idea of this introduction is to ask the question, what if this was you? What if you had to navigate these cities that seem to be not easy to navigate at all.

Malika Bilal: In the first intro we are in New York City. There is a woman waiting on the subway platform, a woman going down a long escalator.

Viktorija Mickute: After the introduction, the viewer can actually experience the daily routes of our characters. The person can choose which mode of public transport they’re gonna take. For example, if it’s a train or a bus or a taxi, and then with every step, there comes a challenge. So for example, in New York City, when you try to reach your subway station, there is a ramp that is broken. So the idea is to evoke frustration and hopelessness. The feelings that people with disability impacted by the inaccessibility of our cities face every time they go out and try to reach their destinations.

Malika Bilal: And then the site asked if I was in a wheelchair.

Viktorija Mickute: Are you in a wheelchair? Can you, you know, do you need a good ramp? If you do that adds another minute. You have to find a ramp, then the elevator might be broken in the station. What do you do then? Then you have to find another station.

Malika Bilal: But for many people around the world, this is not a game. The World Health Organization says that almost everyone is likely to experience some form of disability, whether that’s temporary or permanent at some point in their life. So though these stories are not ones that come to the forefront very often, they are so likely to touch each and every one of us in some way. What did you walk away with as an understanding after doing this story?

Viktorija Mickute: As a journalist focusing on the stories from marginalized communities and communities hit with injustice, this is definitely the community that I hope more media is focusing on.

Malika Bilal: Have you heard feedback from people as to what the reaction is? To figuring out, to learning, how challenging it is or if they have disabilities to seeing that acknowledged.

Viktorija Mickute: Yeah, exactly. Like we’ve heard the feedback in terms of that you have the pop-up messages ‘you are late for your meeting’ like that, that’s everybody was like, ‘I felt the frustration. I felt the frustration being there.’

Malika Bilal: Have you heard anything from local officials, from government officials, from people who design these cities and design these modes of inaccessibility?

Viktorija Mickute: Major news from New York City. The authorities are saying that they’re gonna make  95% of the subway stations accessible by 2055 while currently around 25% is only accessible. So that’s big news. Things are slowly changing.

Malika Bilal: It seems like such a light thing in comparison to someone who has to navigate a city in a wheelchair, but every time I’m walking with my roller suitcase and I get to a part of the sidewalk here in the US that’s not dipped down. I think about how much more difficult this would be if I was in a wheelchair and anytime I see an elevator or something that makes transport easier, I do thank the community of people with disabilities for making it so that life is a little bit easier for everyone.

Viktorija Mickute: For sure. At AJ Contrast, any project we do, it’s super important for us to collaborate and co-create with the community that we cover and this was what we did for this project as well. So we worked with Sarah Kim, a journalist with cerebral palsy from New York City and Kelechukwu Ogu, a blind journalist from Lagos and we crafted narrative together. And what they really helped us with is to find the most important, the most critical issues that we need to cover, and, and focus on them whilst grounding them in the human stories of people with disabilities.

Malika Bilal: And of course it’s important that the people you’re reporting on are able to access the story as well. The work that you did was produced using features to make it an inclusive experience itself, which of course is very important if you’re gonna talk about inclusivity or accessibility, then the product itself needs to be inclusive and accessible.

Viktorija Mickute: We spent a significant amount of time and resources to make this project fully accessible to the visually and hearing impaired and other people with disabilities. It’s definitely a learning curve. It’s the first project that we are doing that is fully accessible,  so many things to think about. It was, adding audio descriptions to the videos, adding the alternative text for images, which means that we are describing every image and giving an opportunity for people who cannot see those images for their text reader to read what the image entails, what is in that image. If they’re not able to access what is out there online, they cannot access information. They cannot read about things or watch or see or hear then it’s, it’s really difficult for them to be a part of the society’s conversations.

Malika Bilal: And it’s those conversations that can contribute to change, change that Nidhi and Rebecca are still fighting for. And change that Olajumuke had dreamed of.

Olajumuke Olajide: In future, I want to be a better person to bring athletes more, people with like my own disability. I want to bring them up to build the best of themselves because people with disabilities, we are not worst. We are the best.

Malika Bilal: And that’s The Take. You can explore more of the Inaccessible Cities story at We’ll also add a link in the description to this episode. This episode was produced by Ruby Zaman with Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke,  Ney Alvarez, Negin Owliaei , Chloe K Li and me, Malika Bilal. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Adam Abou-Gad and Aya Elmileik are our engagement producers. We’ll be back.

Source: Al Jazeera