Saturday, 21 April 2012

Is it so hard to treat people with dignity?

Times of India, April 21, 2012

Is there any real reason why any of the following situations, which people with disabiities  have to contend with on an almost daily basis, should at all arise if only our societies were sensitive/sensible: 
  • The pilot of an aircraft takes a look at  a person who is already seated in the craft, and who suffers from a condition described by wikipedia as encompassing a group of non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement, concludes for reasons best known to himself, it is still not clear on what `evidence', that she was mentally imbalanced and is a threat to the security of `his passengers'. (A look at her qualifications indicates that the pilot should be more than happy to be mentally her equal.) He has the seated handicapped person `de-boarded' because he doubts her mental stability, discounting her attempts to inform the airline staff that she has tried/wanted (unsuccessfully as it turned out eventually)  to take the flight from Kolkata to attend a meeting she has been invited to address in Goa.

  • A much publicised `super idol' programme for people with disabilities is organised in Mumbai where Bollywood superstars donate large amounts of money to people with disabilities who have achieved wonderful things despite their limitations; one of the people selected to receive this honour is Hema, the founder of the Association for People with Disabilities. Hema is unable to go (possibly because she has had more than  her fill of the indignities to be undergone in order to fly anywhere), but a friend and fellow-worker at APD offers to receive the award on her behalf. This friend is also no mean achiever; after having been a member of the Mysore Hockey team which lifted the national championship continuously from 1960 to 1968 (one of the original Chak De girls!),  she went on to represent India; but later she was curtailed in her mobility due to the onset of Rheumatoid Arthritis, after which she founded the Arthritis Foundation of India; anyway, Jacquelyn plans to go to Bombay to receive the award on Hema's behalf, in spite of the fact that she herself is constrained to a wheelchair these days. So what happens? For the longest time, she does not get the wheelchair she has asked for, and after having had to stand for close to a half-hour, just before she collapses out of sheer exhaustion, the wheel-chair arrives, and what she has to say about the consideration extended to her by the airline staff is probably not printable (The latest information on this is that the airline concerned has sent her a sincere-sounding apology that Jackie seems to be reasonably happy with.) Is it unreasonable to hope for wheel-chairs kept freely available like baggage carts?
  • And in case you think I am unnecessarily panning the airlines for all these instances of insensitivity/rudeness, there was a newspaper item a couple of days after the Jeeja Ghosh incident (item 1 above), on how the airport security had been instructed that disbled people in wheelchairs are a potential terrorist threat and need to be scrutinised with a toothcomb. As was observed by Javed Abidi, a longtime disability activist, and reported in the same newspaper report, India has the dubious distinction of being the only country where all people in wheelchairs are asked to stand up and be frisked by airport security!
My concern is over the sickening frequency with which these incidents occur, abject subsequent apologies notwithstanding. Can't a meaningful penalty be imposed for such violations of human rights? As it is, it is almost like Russian roulette as to which disabled person will suffer the next indignity at the hands of some airline.

I periodically receive emails from readers of this column to the effect that they sympathise with me. As I have repeatedly said and will never tire of saying, people like me do not want sympathy; we merely ask for an environment that allows us to lead our lives productively and in dignity. `In dignity' is the operative phrase; is it unreasonable for me to want to not visibly always be in need of somebody else's help? However willing you may be to help me, is it so hard to understand, for instance, that if I want to pee, I  do not want to be aided to do so, espeially in front of a hundred people?

And this is what is most irritating about the recent airline episode. This kind of prototyping is demeaning, nasty and unacceptable; it is not dissimilar in obnoxiousness to a black man being arrested because the incongruence of his walking in a rich white neighbourhood makes him `look suspicious', or a `low-born'  boy getting beaten up for having had the temerity to look at a `high-caste' girl, or the Dalit girl who was brutally reminded of her place in society for having the audacity to ride a bicycle which makes her appear taller than a brahmin walking on the street (Heaven forbid!). Such instances of heaping indignity on defenceless souls is the trademark of a bully, and has no place in decent society!

Is it too much to want/expect from a civilised society that every individual be treated with the dignity that  decency demands? I keep writing in this column that what people like me, who are every bit as accomplished as the next (wo)man, and whose only failing is not possessing somebody's almost `Hitler-ian'  fixation for the ideal and flawless body, want is to be treated on the basis of what we bring to the table, and not penalised for what we may physically be incapable of producing.

Do we really want to belong to a society which would, for instance, wantonly omit Sachin Tendulkar from a cricket team because he is not tall or `fair and lovely' like, say, Graeme Hick (who had trouble holding a place in the England squad)? For crying out loud!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Spare a thought for the Elderly

Times of India, April 7, 2012

My writing this column in the Times of India for a while now is the only reason why I have been asked on two different occasions now to give a non-mathematical talk, first by a corporate house and more recently by a local chapter of the Rotary Club. It is very satisfying to know that there are people who read my column, like what they read and what is more, even want me to further publicise the issues addressed in my column. I shall more or less reproduce the talk that I gave the Rotarians.

Not long ago, my daughter who has the advantage of belonging to the facebook generation sweetly offered to start a blog on my account at as a convenient place to collate all my pieces appearing in this column, along with anything else that that I may have written which addresses the issues of inclusivity in society, as well as to give people a chance to post their responses if they wished to do so.

She knew what she was doing; I soon received the following eminently sensible response in the blog from one of the more faithful of readers of the blog: (And this wasn't the first reader of this column to have made similar observations.)

Although you have so far focused on the problems faced by people with certain specific disabilities, age itself is in one sense a disability that many of us will face one day. Unless the attitudes of our planners and administrators change drastically, the aged in India will find themselves confined to very tiny pockets of their respective towns and cities. You are therefore writing & speaking on issues which may concern a few even during their prime, but will in all probability affect every one of us in course of time.

Just the other day, I had gone to Krishna Gana Sabha in T. Nagar in Chennai, which is a very chic far cry from the thatched roof pandal with bucket cane-chairs it used to be in `the good old days'. In the middle of the performance, I needed to find a toilet. (The increased frequency with which one needs to do so is also an off shoot of aging.) Of course there are lots of steps everywhere so you can't use a wheel-chair even if you wanted to. After I had hobbled what seemed to be very, very far for my screaming limbs, I found a not very hygienic place, with more steps of course! After doing what I had come for, I started the long walk back feeling sorry for myself - like many of our star batsmen must have repeatedly felt during their extended recent nightmare in Australia.

Like them, I had the comfort of another aged comrade walking the same path and suffering the same pain, and this seventy-plus lady looked at me labouring with my cane and said commiseratingly: `These sort of distances are such a problem only for people like us'. But as the above reader observes: Sooner or later, everybody is going to be a `person like us'.

As per the city traffic police, one out of five pedestrians killed in road accidents registered in the city last year was an elderly person and 80% of them were pedestrians. According to a report by the Chairman, Transport Advisory Forum, Chennai:

An elderly woman died on the spot after being knocked down by a bus near Vadapalani. It is a story repeated in every city in India. These accidents show that pedestrians, especially the elderly, are extremely vulnerable. Pedestrians account for about 50 per cent of all persons killed and about 45 per cent of persons injured in road accidents in our cities. The elderly constitute 30 to 40 per cent of those killed or injured in these accidents. Elderly pedestrians walk in extremely unsafe and hostile conditions, are in constant conflict with motorised traffic and, hence, easy victims of accidents in India.

(I can't resist the urge to say `I told you so': one of my early articles to appear in this column lamented the almost impossibility of crossing roads today, especially multi-lane speedways such as OMR, with the possibilities for crossing them being few and far between.)

According to a recent newspaper report:

Transport experts have welcomed the idea to introduce foot overbridge with escalators, but not without warning. "It will be very helpful to senior citizens and the diff erently-abled, who are otherwise at the mercy of motorists. The government should ensure proper maintenance of these structures, or else they will meet the same fate as the escalators at MRTS stations, that are idle without maintenance," said KP Subramanian, former professor, urban engineering division, Anna University.

If the traffic authorities cannot help save our elders on our roads, what sort of a reflection is that of the Tamil saying (by Avvaiyar) from antiquity:

Annaiyum Pitavum Munnari Deivam
(One's mother and father are the first gods one encounters!).

This is a plea to readers to use your contacts, singly or collectively, to apply pressure on the relevant authorities to try and ensure that:
  • while so much money is being spent on roads to facilitate fast traffic, at least a small fraction of that should be devoted to usable pavements and foot-bridges with escalators/elevators; you don't have to be disabled and dependent on a wheelchair to appreciate the need and the comfort of elevators.
  • there should be an efficient complaint/service mechanism in place for getting the concerned people to repair these elevators/escalators when they start to malfunction. (If reporting and repairing faults can be smoothly done `online' with BSNL, it is not as if there isn't a blueprint for a functioning model which is already in place.)
  • in public places like concert halls, marriage halls, etc., toilets should not be located at great distances or up/down flights of stairs from the `central' areas;
  • public places should have a few wheel-chairs on hand which will be gratefully used by many people, who can be trusted to have them returned to where they were found.
I know all this is far easier said than done. The only thing that works is to identify specific instances where something seems warranted and try to implement the necessary change. I am proud to say that by being a persistent nuisance, I have succeeded in getting at least three places of higher learning agree to conduct `access audits' of their campuses and improve the state of accessibility for people like me. Wars are won only by winning many small skirmishes and battles! So, please help save our elders before modernisation makes them extinct: set yourselves achievable small goals and steadily chip away at this mountain of a problem.

By a probably not very strange coincidence, yesterday was my 60th birthday and it seemed appropriate to have this article appear on my first day as a senior citizen!