Tuesday, 16 August 2016

What is this thing called independence? (Apologies to Cibber)

I just want to describe a normal day in my life in independent India. As my apartment is not really accessible to my wheelchair, my going and making myself a cup of hot coffee in the morning is not really too comfortable. In fact, doing anything in our kitchen is quite an effort, so usually my wife sweetly does everything - from cooking to cleaning up afterwards. And because my fingers are not particularly supple, I even need her help for opening plastic wrappers or the foil in which tablets are packed; so I have to leave that as just more of those things she has to do for me. But my wife does it unquestioningly and affectionately.

The next phase, after I have somehow managed to bathe and clothe myself, is still not so bad. When I need to go to the institute to work, my driver Sekar comes home, and I need his hand as well as the crutch in my right hand to hobble downstairs to the car. We get to the institute and Sekar drops me at the institute gate (where I have this arrangement with the security guards, whereby they have previously been told by when I will need the battery of my wheelchair charged). I hobble from the car to the wheelchair, and drive across to my office in it, and am able to function with a modicum of independence. I do have some troubles, however, with the recently constructed guest house canteen which has its share of (i) dining halls which allow very few possible spots where I can sit in my wheelchair and eat, and (ii) doors which automatically swing shut or which are bolted so I can get through only if somebody holds the door open for me.

And if I have to go out somewhere (to eat, for instance), I need Sekar to disassemble and then load my wheelchair in my car to take us to the restaurant. And now if that restaurant is not in a five-star hotel, you can be almost sure that there will not be ramps to permit a smooth ride. (And this is after Sekar has taken my wheels out of the trunk, reassembled it, and assisted me from the car to the wheelchair.) More often than not, some number of steps will have to be negotiated while somebody assists me (typically by grabbing some part of my body without bothering to ask me if I need assistance, until I have passed the steps).

And I am able to do even this much only because I can afford to have a car and immensely resourceful and helpful driver. Now if I was not so fortunate and had to use public transport, I'd have no choice but to sit at home all day and drive myself and everybody around crazy.

And Shri Modi, our Prime Minister, you who seem to have no trouble in having access to my phone number to send me a message `wishing me a happy independence day' and giving me a link to where I can hear you speak on the occasion! How do I get to write to you to tell you that I hope you can have a taste of the frustration of a totally dependent existence which one need not have if only our rulers took their commitments to being signatories to the UNCRPD a little more seriously? Have your appropriate ministries pay attention to the hundreds of things they need to do rather than invent new names for existing ministries which lead to new ways of not completing the pile of tasks needing to be done. You who are supposed to `get things done', please subject each bureaucrat/minister in MSJE (which you are attributing divine powers to) to spend the first month in office by alternatively having to move only in a wheelchair, or walk blindfolded, or with their ears completely stuffed so they cannot hear anything. In short, it is time for all you glib talkers to WALK THE TALK.

And you want to know something? That which robs me my independence is not my physical condition due to having contracted Multiple Sclerosis, but the barrier-ridden environment and the exclusive mind-set of the citizens of India (or Bharat, if you prefer that).  It is not just the rich and `advanced' countries like USA or UK which permit people with disabilities to function with total independence. My recent visit to Bali in Indonesia showed me that even countries where our Rupee is not an insignificant amount of money showed me that you can be generous and inclusive in even such a country. So, as a great man once said, `LET MY PEOPLE FREE'. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

Accessible India - a pipe dream?

A few days ago, the Economic Times in India cited this news item, whose second pargraph has the telling line which describes `Accessible India' as the Prime Minister's pet initiative. (If this is the status of his pets, imagine the plight of his not-so-favourite people/animals!)

If you want to make a study of status of educational institutions in India, wouldn't it be a good idea to study practices of the more successful ones (like the Indian Statistical Institute or IIT, Mumbai) rather than confine oneself to the self-financing colleges of Tamil Nadu? I hear that the study cited above only refers to buildings in a list prepared by Accessible India Campaign.

When I asked around, I found that the Govt. has adopted a typical bureaucratic and unimagintive procedure doomed to failure. The Govt. asked the State Govts. to give a lit of the most frequently visited public buildings. The Auditors were selected through a bid by the Government on the basis of their experience and competence.

On the other hand, imagine a scenario where an imaginative photographer makes a five minute walk through video of Arushi, Bhopal and Vidya Sagar, Chennai, and follows that up with inaccessible metros and reilway stations; and then draw up a list of respected people in the field (Anil, Vaishnavi, Shivani, Anjlee, and NO ministerial type, maybe a respected IAS officer) to draw up a game-plan. That will make the task at hand clear as mud.

For instance, I just received a message on WhatsApp about 350 `no-frill airports' coming up at one shot. (What we do not want is a mindless repeat of endless inaccessible elections. Recent experience shows that if there was any improvement in the recent local elections, it was because of the initiative shown by vaerious groups of PwD.) Immeditely, there was a flurry of messages on WhatsApp by `the community' suggesting ways and means of creating an `accessible airport template manual or the Aviation Ministry to send out to these 350 airports'. (One has to just compare this with the desire and urgency shown by the Gehlots and the dignitaries of the Divyang Ministries to do something similar before another opportunity goes down the drain.)

Monday, 27 June 2016

A math lesson for disability rights 

I want to give a sermon on the two ways - one good, and one not-so-good - of doing something on a large scale (from the pulpit of a mathematician to `social justice' ministries). So I request your forbearance while I start with a little high school mathematics.

Write C(n,r) for the number of teams of r players that can be made from a population of size n, where r is a whole number no larger than another whole number n. There is a scary/ugly formula which counts this number. For example, C(8,3) is the ratio (8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1)/[(3x2x1)(5x4x3x2x1)]; in general if we write n! (read n factorial) for (nx(n-1)x(n-2)x...x3x2x1), then C(n,r)=(n!)/[(r!){(n-r)!}].) Coming up with clever and elegant ways of solving such potentially horrendous`counting problems' is the delightful area of combinatorics.

Let me begin by discussing the equation:  C(n,r)xr = nxC(n-1,r-1). The right way of seeing this equation is as follows. (and the inelegant way is to use the formula with `factorials' discussed above.) Imagine that the task in hand is to see how many ways there are of choosing a team of r players out of a population of n, and select a captain to lead that team. There are (at least) two ways of finding the answer: on the one hand, you can first pick the team (in one of C(n,r) possible ways), and after that, pick one of the r players of the team you have chosen as captain, hence arriving at C(n,r)r as the desired answer; on the other hand, you can choose one of the n people in the land as captain and then choose the remaining (r-1) players from the available (n-1) people to find that the answer is also given by nC(n-1, r-1). Legend  has it that the English (and the Indians) opted for  the second method of choosing their team, while the Australians adopted the `more democratic' first way of choosing their team.

While I am at it, let me cite one more lesson I have learnt from mathematics. There is a tradition of holding an International Congress of Mathematicians once every four years. For example, ICM 2010 was held in Hyderabad, India. Even then, appropriate committees met to decide on the venue (Seaoul, Korea) for the next ICM from among the cities wsho had `bid' for the honour, and the compositions of all the various working committees decided on by the current committee which comprised only of mathematicians and not a single political appointee - and the new committees started having meetings soon in order to draw up an agenda of tasks to be completed before the next ICM, and a time-line for what tasks must be completed by when.

Now for Indian reality. India periodically reconstitutes her Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) to look into the tasks to be performed for the betterment of her citizens who have disabilities of some sort. A novel way that our Governmant hs arrived at to handle all such problems is to rename ministries and draw up a pretentious list of tasks. And they keep having their meetings without broad-based consultations or doing their homework first. Let me give a few brilliant decisions taken by our Govt:

(i) They flagged off an `accessible model train' which a wheelchair could not enter.

(ii) They are thinking of a bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. when there are no elevators in normal train stations.

(iii) The MSJE was suddenly renamed (with a Hindi name) because our brilliant Prime Minister decided that it was better to call a PwD Divyang (a person endowed with with divinity) - how else will they have special abilities to do all they do?

(iv) I have written in the past about our horrific experience with the lack of accesssability of the Chennai Metro.

(v) Disability Activists all around the world have been chanting the slogan `Nothing for us without us'. We have been shouting ourselves hoarse with `No to Divyang' and `Nothing for us without us'; but our relevant ministry is either hearing impaired Divyang or wilfully chooses not to listen!


Now you see why I hate the British thinking which first chooses a captain and then asks him to choose his team!

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Don't get a plumber for a doctor's job

I don't know what it is but so many people are utterly incapable of understanding what it means to say that some place is accessible to a wheelchair - as I have repeatedly found, to my dismay and eventual discomfort. This post is a sort of excuse/explanation to many of my friends/colleagues in the Disbility Rights Alliance (or DRA, as it is better known) as to why I have almost studiously been a non-participant in their efforts to make the coming elections 100% inclusive of people with various sorts of disabilities - locomotor/visual/psychosocial/....

This was a conscious decision on my part for various reasons. For one thing, I was teaching a course, and had my weekly meetings with my Ph.D. students, and every expedition with my DRA team-mates involved time and energy. For instance, when we had the first meeting with the CEO, one of his secrtearies had written after months of my colleagues pleading to have an accessible=inclusive election in TN in June, asking us to come and meet the CEO in the Secretariat. Now, I have been to this monstrosity of inaccessibility and rude behaviour by the police many times. So I wrote to the CEO suggesting that if we are going to promote accessibility, we might as well start by meeting in Vidya Sagar or in IMSc which are both truly accessible institutions. To my surprise, the CEO wrote in the eleventh hour accepting my invitation to come to IMSc. We had a promising first meeting when various promises were made. The next meeting was arranged in the Secretariat in the CEO's chamber. It is almost a matter of routine that a meeting is fixed for 9 am, then postponed till 5 pm, and Smitha goes to this `chamber' at 5 but the man does not get there till after 7 pm. This total disregard for other people's time is something you have to learn to live with if you want to work with Govt. bureaucrats, and I don't have time to waste on people who have no respect for other people's time.

I got myself a fancy smart phone so I could have a WhatsApp and be part of the deliberations on plans for this inclusive election 2016. I get over 100 messages everyday in this connection, and almost always, they vindicate the decision I took. Polling booths still typically do not have ramps of accessible gradient, or have problems with enabling people with visual impairment to cast their vote. DRA had ambitious dreams of getting people out of `institutions' (where they have been institutionalised) so they could cast their ballot.

 It has been a revelation to see Vaishnavi marshall/bully/cajole her forces ino trying to achieve the unimaginable. Many of our Govt. servants would do well to sit at her feet and  learn how to run such a campaign. Instead, they just end up antagonising her when she is only too willing to freely offer her services. Did the CEO try, just once, to organise his meeting in an accessible place? Can he find an accessible place in Chennai? His travel to any meeting would be in air-conditioned comfort, while the meetings in his `Chambers' mean  that people like Smitha, Rajiv and Meenakshi pay out of their pocket and travel in auto-rickshaws with their wheelchairs and crutches crammed in alongside them! What a great way to spend the peak of Chennai summer!

In spite of DRA working non-stop since December, and running an amazing programme trying to get the Govt. head-hgonchos in the Election Commission to come to the table and join hands in a serious attempt at making the 2016 the local elections in TN, Kerala, Bengal and Assam totally inclusive, the tragic reality is that while there has been some marginal improvement at a few isolated places, the ground reality has changed little since the 2009 experience. You just have to look at the 150-odd photographs of the general state of (in)accessibility of polling booths that has been compiled by Vaishnavi Jayakumar in Facebook which she calls `Throwback Trauma'.

I'll conclude this sorry narration with a parallel/suggestion:if you want to build a good centre for string theory, leave the decision making to a specialist like Asike Sen rather than an incompetent but probably well-meaning Smriti Irani! If you want to make this country an accessible place for PwD, please leave the planning to a Shivani Gupta/Vaishnavi Jayakumar rather than babus who have screwed up time and time again. I know the Chief Election Officer in TN feels DRA only complains without appreciating the steps he has taken; it is not that I do not appreciate the steps he has taken, but the fact remains that a half-built ramp that does not take a wheelchair user all the way to the top - and at a gradient which will not threaten life or limb - is a job half-done, and which needs to be left next time to somebody who knows what is needed.



Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Self-goal masters

I have been to two events with the purported aim of sensitising people about the need for an inclusive society, both held in studios where I had been invited to be part of a show to talk about disability related matters. The first time, it was for an NDTV News at 7 pm on a friday evening, and I have written about that experience elsewhere in this blog. The second time was yesterday, it was in response to a request from a fellow disability acivist, to say a few words about inclusion for a video that was being prepared for airing at an event later this week. Another thing happened at both events. Before the shooting was to start, I was asked if my crutch which I carry around for the eventuality of having to walk even a few steps somewhere; and both times, I refused, saying I objected to having signs of my assistive devices hidden away. If you want me, I come with whatever my disability entails!

In both cases, I asked the person who was going to be at the studio whether the studio was wheelchair accessible and free of the omnipresent steps that are the bane of wheelchair users. In both cases, I was told there was a small step, but that I would be given all necessary help. And in both cases, there was more than just `a small step', and a bit of walking on one's own feet, which is doable for me but NOT for many wheelchair-using friends of mine. When will people understand what accessibility means for a person with locomotor problems? If the above instances keep repeating even when the event in question is being organised to improve inclusion and sensitise people on matters of concern for PwD, is there any hope for the  much touted `Accessible India Campaign' ever taking off the ground?

If we repeatedly score `same-side goals' before the game even starts, how can we ever hope to win? 

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Fit any steps design

Throughout the past few `music seasons' in Chennai, I did not go to a single music concert although I am a `patron member' of the Music Academy and get sent a season ticket - for the simple reason of access problems. This year, my sister-in-law was bent on making a change in this self-denial programme. What she did was to find one venue which was accessible to me and my wheelchair. When we drove into the parking lot, I saw the inevitable two steps at the entrance. Even as I started getting hot under the collar, I saw her come with a couple of guys carrying this brilliantly crafted and ingeniously designed ramp,  yet so elementary an idea and easily and economically made. I thought this is the solution India has been waiting for.
The answer to our problems?
You will know why I am getting so excited by something looking so common and simple only when you realise the staggering number of people in India who think an inaccessible place becomes accessible if one puts a plank of wood on a flight of steps - even if it means a gradient of 1:1! I have been stupid enough once to go down down such an incline, and I thought that was curtains for me. Even last week, a colleague (one without any disabilities) told me of such an impossible ramp at a premier research institute in Chennai (not mine, but one I have referred to as a `sister institute' in an old post in this blog. Maybe Pramath, Sundar or Alok can teach some basics of access to the administrators? The internationally accepted standard for ramps is a minimum of 1:12!) While this may not work in an auditorium with a long flight of steps, it is certainly what the doctor ordered for a majority of commercial establishments which typically have anywhere between one and five steps from the pavement to the entrance.

What is attractive about this design is that it allows for custom-made ramps for just about every conceivable design. Even if a place has three steps of respective heights 4,6 and 2 inches, and width 4, 5 and 2 inches, the design allows for a make-shift ramp with a gradient of 1:12 (thus the base can be (4+6+2)x12 = 144 inches, i.e., 12 ft. wide) and removed immediately after use - rather than a base of 4+5+2 = 11 inches, whisch would not stick out much but could result in broken bones and expensive lawsuits!

On a recent visit to IIT Kanpur where I had been invited to give a talk, I had told my host and friend of more than 30 years now that when I had stayed,  long ago, in their Visitors House (or VH, as it is called by IIT-K folk), I had had a painful fall (fortunately without any long term ill-effects) which could have been avoided if there had been a few shrewdly placed grab-bars; and in response to my request, she arranged for the installing of such bars! But the ramp at the entrance to the VH was of the plank-on-step kind of design. I noticed and pointed out a couple of other places (such as in their auditorium) where there were a few steps which hindered smooth passage of my - indeed any - wheelchair. In response to her query on possible solutions, I showed her this design, and she immediately saw the merits and got a copy of the above photograph and sent it to the person in charge of the appropriate department, who promptly came up to me at breakfast next day to say these shortcomings would be remedied before my next visit to IIT-K.

If only our sister institutes in Chennai would respond as pro-actively!

PS: Can i be so impudent as to suggest to the MSJE that this be considered as (a) a possibility of creating employment for PwD who have some carpentry skills, and (b) make it mandatory on public private buildings to make their frontages measured and a job entrusted with qualified carpenters, preferably as in (a) above, and make themselves accessible at fairly minimal costs?

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

A beautiful place with ugly values

I am going to indulge in yet another bout of New Zealand bashing. Earlier, I had posted two accounts of how, flying completely against all available evidence, the medical assessors of that country had denied me a visitor visa for two weeks solely on the grounds that I had multiple sclerosis and was likely to be a strain on their medical services and finances - in spite of my assuring them that I would have insurance and even if the insurance company refused to foot the bill for pre-existing conditions, I had provided them enough evidence of solvency to show that I could pay for whatever damages were incurred!

And today, I find (on facebook) that the medical assessors have been up to their tricks yet again - this time to deny a residency status to a young son of a mathematician, who has already been on the faculty of the University of Auckland for some four years, because the son had autism! Never mind that the father was a respected member of the math dept there and had even been recipient of a handsome grant! The Vice- Chancellor of the university is quoted by The Guardian as saying he was was “an example of the outstanding young academics we must have at the University of Auckland if we are to maintain our premier world ranking”. Meanwhile, this mathematician reportedly had the good sense to say “I do not see myself raising my children in a country that does not respect the UN convention on human rights.” According to the president of the New Zealand Mathematics Society,  the departure of “an outstanding mathematician”  would be “a great loss for us and New Zealand”.

And this country is supposed to have been a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability since early 2007! Do such grandiose commitments to a better tomorrow have no meaning? Should there not be a penalty levied on such obvious defaulters? The Guardian article cited above goes on, by the way, to say `In the year 2014/2015, Immigration New Zealand declined 116 residency applications solely on medical grounds. 
The disability rights commissioner, Paul Gibson, was not available for comment.' (I wonder how many of those 116 were persons with some manner of disability!)

This country seems to be blessed with a natural beauty that makes you go `Ooh' and `Aah'; but cursed with a Government whose human values make you go `sick' and `yecch'.

The Indian Government, also a signatory to the UNCRPD, is also threatening to go the Kiwi way by removing diseases like MS and Autism from the ambit of the `India-specific' clone of the UNCRPD Bill (called the RPDB) about which, also, I have bored to death the long suffering reader of this blog. I can only pray that my country, which claims centuries of a humanitarian civilisation, retains its humanity!