Sukhjeen Kaur: Disabilities in Focus - Accessibility in Sikh Spaces

Part two of Disabilities in Focus: Punjabi and Sikh Communities

The series image created by Sukhjeen Kaur. Body-profile images of disabled individuals without and with disability aids (wheelchair, crutches, guide-dog and ostomy bag) are shown outside Sri Harmandir Sahib on a pastel pink background. Sri Harmandir Sahib has a faint grey glow around it. At the top-centre of the image, the title reads ‘Disabilities in Focus: Punjabi and Sikh Communities’

This is the second installment of a five-part series centering the knowledge and insights of people living with disabilities within the context of Punjabi and Sikh communities. You can read part one, Introducing Disabilities in Focus: Punjabi and Sikh Communities, by Shuranjeet Singh here.

Sukhjeen Kaur
October 26, 2021 | 5 min. read | Disabilities in Focus Part 2

Every time I have visited the Gurdwara Sahib, I have seen some accommodations met but never the ones I have needed. I have always left having caused more pain or fatigue to my body, which is not how any person should leave after spending time with their Guru ji. This lack of adaptation not only makes us feel unworthy but also deters us from coming back.

Can you imagine being constantly told that Guru ji would look after you and your disability whilst not having access to the religious space that helps?

Have you ever noticed that we make disabled people feel like they are not worthy of Guru Ji by allowing our Gurdwara Sahibs to remain inaccessible? By only allowing certain bodies through the door, we make it clear that disabled people are not valued. Not valuing disabled people contributes to inequalities at many Gurudwara sahibs.

In accordance with the UK’s Equality Act 2010, all places of worship should be providing adequate access to their buildings to decrease the discrimination towards disabled people. But why does it continue to feel tokenistic? Making accommodations to align with the law instead of putting the disabled person at the forefront has allowed the adaptations to be insincere. This mentality has ultimately allowed discrimination to dominate our Quam in a subtle way.

Kanch Randhawa, a professional wheelchair hockey player and lifelong disability advocate in Canada, shared his experiences of accessibility in a Gurdwara.

“As a person with a physical disability who uses a power wheelchair full-time, I’ve sometimes felt unwelcome and faced many physical accessibility issues while accessing a Gurdwara, but attitudinal barriers have been far worse. The worst being sevdars telling me to park my wheelchair outside the Diwan hall, as I was sitting in a ‘chair’. 

A Gurdwara is a place for all to find peace, tranquility and contemplation. Listening to gurbani, kirtan and katha provides all Sikhs an opportunity to connect with the Guru’s teachings and learn about our history. Our Sikh community must invest in creating a more welcoming environment for the disabled.” 

Kanch Randhawa (he/him) - husband, father, lifelong disability advocate, professional wheelchair hockey player, Canada. 

Accessibility requires a person to have ease of access or reach, which is necessary for all people and not just disabled people. Temporary injury can result in limited mobility or extra requirements at the time of injury; this is when accessibility for a disabled person can favour an able person too, just another reason why we should make an accessible world as it benefits all.

When saying the word ‘accessibility’, the first thing that usually comes to people’s minds is a wheelchair ramp or a lift. However, accessibility is individual and doesn’t just apply to wheelchair users or those with physical disabilities. Despite having similar diagnostic labels, individuals are affected by the same disabilities differently to one another too. Each disability is unique to each person therefore certain accommodations would not work for every disabled person. This means nothing can be fully accessible, but we can continue to help meet accommodations to at least offer more options, be more inclusive. 

When going anywhere we have a purpose in mind. We go for that specific reason and leave. We don’t tend to pay attention to our surroundings whilst asking why certain things are there and why some are not. Therefore, I am doubtful that anyone, especially an able person, has entered a Gurdwara Sahib and asked why certain accommodations have not been fully met. We are also unlikely to notice that specific people are only entering the building when everyone around you looks like you.

So, what kind of things need to be changed?

Accessibility is individual but there are specific things that could be perpetuating inaccessibility at Gurdwareh. For example, the speakers being too loud, being unable to read along to Bani, stairs-only access to the Darbar Sahib/Langar Hall, no chairs or hard plastic chairs in the Darbar Sahib, a lack of understanding of disability from Sangat especially for invisible disabilities一 such aspects can be hard for people with a range of disabilities including neurodivergent individuals and those with sensory difficulties (e.g., hearing and vision impaired).

Tegh Singh, a personal development coach, and US Army combat veteran, reflects on obstacles he has experienced within the Gurdwara setting: 

“The Gurdwara is meant to be a symbol of and vehicle for service to the community, so it saddens me to see how most are designed without consideration for the accessibility needs of the Sangat. I have severe PTSD which makes large crowds and constant noise highly distressing. My local Gurdwaras have no intentionally quiet spaces, and create crowding, even on low attendance days. We have parking lots with blocked fire lanes, wide open spaces intentionally turned into narrow walkways funnelling us into massive rooms with 3 out of 5 exits permanently blocked. My choice is then difficult - risk a panic attack or stay home.” 

Tegh Singh (he/him) - husband, father, personal development coach and US Army Combat veteran, Canada

In making gurudwaras more accessible, listening to the disabled person should be prioritized.

This can either be through interviewing a disability advocate, creating surveys for the local area, or getting a professional to conduct a disability access assessment. These types of accessibility can be long-term and involve planning and organisation however, there are things that can be achieved short-term whilst working on the long-term goals. These can include registering to adopt the sunflower lanyard, having signs around the Gurdwara Sahib making people aware of invisible disabilities, and registering the complex on ‘AccessAble’

Another necessary step is creating an accessibility pledge. As mentioned before, accessibility is diverse so people with disabilities should either be able to check the accommodations present at Gurdwara Sahib or request them for future access. This means having contact information that is regularly monitored by committee members through many methods (e.g. email, phone, social media, etc.).

Not only would these accommodations make disabled lives easier, but they would also help disabled people feel included in a world that thinks of us last. 

This impact alone should be reason enough to listen to disabled people.

There has been a wealth of information within this piece, which I am mindful of. It can be difficult to figure out where to start, especially when you are new to this topic.  The first places to start when trying to become more accessible are talking to disabled people you know. Not every disabled person will be open to speaking about their experiences, but they will appreciate you trying to do better nonetheless. 

You can also contact disability organisations such as Chronically Brown or Asian Disability Network. Doing your own research on accessibility can be helpful too. Some examples of ones I have valued are how to include invisible disability lanyards. I also valued this piece by Alisatair Duggin which explains why ‘accessible for all’ isn’t possible with the wide range of disabilities. 

The intersections of multiple marginalised identities that we have within our Sikh Quam (for example, identifying as disabled and/or LGBTQ+, caste oppressed) lead to different types of injustice and inaccessibility within Sikh spaces. Different aspects of our identities can combine to either afford us privilege and protection or increase our vulnerability towards facing injustice and being pushed away. Ultimately, disability rights are human rights, therefore when trying to reach for equality we must include all communities especially those experiencing clustered disadvantages.

These answers will come with time, reflection, and centering the knowledge of those who have been (un)intentionally excluded from our Guru Ghars.

Following this series we are hoping to continue and build the conversation. If you are interested in getting involved with disability advocacy within Punjabi, Sikh and South Asian communities please complete this form and we will be in contact with further opportunities to get involved, meet new people and build our skills.

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Sukhjeen Kaur (she/her) is a university student advocating for all disabilities, focusing on the intersection of disability and ethnicity. Her work towards this cause came after her sudden diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 20. You can follow her work via Twitter @chronicbrown.


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