Wednesday, 28 March 2012

What Can We Do?

ToI, March 24, 2012

A few months ago, I had a novel and pleasant experience: I was requested by a representative of a corporate house to give a talk to their middle-management on corporate social responsibility. My dubious qualification for giving such a talk was what this representative had seen of my writing in this column. Having never before been asked to give a non-technical talk, I was tickled pink by this invitation and agreed to give this talk in spite of my reservations about stepping into the unchartered waters of public speaking (outside of mathematics!)

My talk was basically a re-cap of my  life in the past ten years, with an emphasis on how my life had been transformed, ever since I had been diagnosed with a neurological condition, from a happy-go, care-free and globe-trotting mathematician to one whose mobility had been reduced to whizzing around in a wheelchair - when I was fortunate enough to find myself in a barrier-free environment which permitted such `whizzing around'. I talked about some of the incidents leading up to my periodically writing pieces in this column. I also spoke about how I had been very fortunate to be working in a very supportive institution, and made some off-the-cuff remarks on how organisations  could help in attaining a more inclusive society.

My talk went off fairly well in that it seemed to have struck a responsive chord in many of the young managers I had addressed. I was asked quite a few questions  after the talk, the common denominator of many of them being: What do you think we, as an organisation, can do in helping to attain that elusive state of  `an inclusive society' which you speak longingly about? At that time, I could not come up with snappy answers to many questions; I found myself saying that I was myself new to the game, was just becoming increasingly aware of the problem, did not presume to have any answers, and was merely asking my audience to recognise the existence of the problem, be increasingly sensitive to it, and try to formulate workable answers in the context of their own organisations.

I shall now venture to suggest some answers to the italicised question above, the appropriateness of these different proposals being a function of how far down the road the concerned organisation has progressed towards the desired objective:
  • Make it a point to hire people with some manner of inability, preferably also in the human resources department; such a hire would help to: 

  1. identify the kinds of work which can be competently performed by employees with specific disabilities;
  2. design a testing procedure which could identify the better qualified/competent among the disabled applicants for jobs;
  3. put in place an efficient orientation programme to help a new employee learn the ropes quickly; it might not be a bad idea to assign a mentor to each fresh recruit with disability, The role of this mentor would be to basically `hold hands' until the difficult initial gestation period is past. She would make it her business to identify the several special difficulties encountered - physically and psychologically - in the work-place, and ensure that her ward is not unreasonably harrassed or victimised by such of her colleagues who might get their jollies by bullying defenceless people!
  • Identify a section of the organisation, which would normally attend to the periodic infrastructural needs, and be assigned the specific task of improving the state of accessibility of the work-place; here are some of the sort of things they could concern themselves with:
  1. conduct periodic `access audits' of the work-place;
  2. make sure that adequate `handicapped parking' spots are assigned and made available to people and in choice spots which would minimise the distance from their parking spot to their seat of work; and levy hefty penalties when these `plum spots' are poached by non-disabled people;
  3. install braille signs and auditory signals in elevators (for the visually impaired);
  4. have evening classes to educate your colleagues on sign-languages and braille so as to better communicate with your hearing and visually impaired colleagues; 
  5. create a barrier-free environment - meaning ramps wherever there are stairs, accessible toilets, etc. - if you have employees using wheelchairs;
  6. pro-actively think and act on how potential problems faced by people with different manners of disabilities can be minimised by thoughtful infra-structural design.
Let me conclude (as I did at the talk that led to this article) with something which cannot be repeated often enough:

What people like me need is not meaningless and cloying sympathy. What we do need, nay demand (in increasing order of greediness) are:
  • an opportunity to work and be productive members of society;
  • a work-place that is sensitive to our special needs, as against victimising us for having them; and
  • an inclusive environment that permits us to contribute our mite to society and lead fruitful lives with dignity.


  1. Sunder, this is a fantastic piece. It has an overall positive tone, clear suggestions that can be put into practice, and is very readable.

  2. Dear VSS,
    Spare a thought

    I am 78 years old and am able to move about, albeit a little shakily on the roads of India. I feel sorry for you. It is the reality we Indians have to face, wherever we live. There is a deep-seated malady named ‘cultural deficiency’. We are a people not only corrupt, but also deficient in good manners. You will find people spitting and doing some acts, which can be euphemistically described as ‘calls of nature’ even on the public roads.

    I lived in Chennai for more than thirty years. When I first went to the city in the late 70s, it was a reasonably civilised city, but by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it had degenerated to such an extent that living there had become a problem. I now live in Bangalore, a much cleaner city with pavements I can walk on. I walk about three kilometres every day now, whereas getting out of my apartment for making small purchases was a big problem in Chennai.

    Let us suppose you want to go to the Vijaya Hospital in Arcot Road. When you come from the Kodambakkam side in a bus, you have to get down before the bus enters the Vadapalani bus terminus. There is an ankle- deep puddle of sewage water. Stepping gingerly around the puddle, you have to cross the road. There is no pedestrian crossing, no traffic signal to allow the public to cross the road. A policeman may be posted there to help the poor pedestrians, but most of the time he will be missing or will be at one of the tea-shops having a free tea and snacks. Crossing the road is a real hazard, because you cannot hear the approaching vehicles which are travelling at breakneck speed to catch the green signal at the next road crossing. A loudspeaker is blaring loud music from the bus stand in praise of some leaders of political parties, which can make you deaf and quaking at the feet. Then you have to carefully negotiate the broken pavement and tread your way carefully towards the hospital. A few feet on the left side of the hospital, a tender-coconut seller has set up a shop occupying most of the space. He has been there for the past several years. There is hardly a foot of space at the edge of the pavement and you have to step down on to the roadway. It is a dangerous move with dare-devil bikers and autos whizzing past like a Formula 1 race to catch the green signal at the next crossing. You are forced down on the roadway, because a gentleman, who looks like a professor of philosophy and his silk-saree wearing wife are blocking it enjoying the tender coconut water, oblivious to the right of others to walk on freely. They will glare at you and not give way.

    Thus, it is not only the uncouth fellow spitting a gobble at your feet when you are approaching him, but also the ‘honourable’ citizens of the city who create obstacles for you. Chennai is considered to be a ‘cultural’ city, but it is not the musical concerts in the Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha or the cultural activities at the Kalakshetra that can make the city ‘cultured’. It is ordinary civic sense that can make a city great.

    Go to any city in the U.S. You are driving along with traffic moving in an orderly fashion. You hear the siren of an ambulance. Every driver stops his/her vehicle without obstructing the path of the ambulance. Only when the ambulance has passed, they will start again. In Chennai I have often seen ambulances that are carrying seriously ill patients held up by vehicles which almost always never give way to them.

    My friends say that even Dhaka in poor Bangla Desh has a better traffic system. No “places of higher learning” in Chennai can make a change in the mindset of the citizens.
    Gaurav Karunakar

  3. I believe in optimism. A good friend of mine ends his e-mails with the following inspiring quote:

    “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world,
    indeed it is the only thing that ever has ! ” Margaret Mead.