Friday, 17 August 2012

Who is mad?

Times of India, August 18, 2012

This piece is related to two milestones. Let me quickly dispose of the first, personal and more pleasant one. It is almost exactly a year since this column came into existence. This is a happy milestone, as writing this column has brought me into contact with so many people and shown me another side of life. My first piece, published on August 20th, 2011, was a questionnaire which is at least as pertinent today as it was then.

The second `milestone', on the other hand, marks one of those countless disgraceful incidents that need the boundary conditions and abject insensitivity of `Incredible India' to happen. Almost exactly a decade ago, on 6th August, 2001, twenty-six people burned to death at Moideen Badususha Mental Home, Erwadi, Tamilnadu because they could not escape the fire, on account of having  been kept chained up when the fire broke out. (Please also see the article in ToI, August 16th by Hussain Kodinhi, and accompanying details of `manacles of mental health'.)

And just to show the world that we were still keeping our hand in, barely about a month ago, on 11th July 2012 , the body of a young woman was found buried within Dulal Smriti Samsad, a home for mentally disabled at Gurap, Hooghly, West Bengal. In fact, once investigation into this  this last manifestation of depravity started, more such bodies were also unearthed. 

Which nation can stand tall and lay claim to all the following mind-blowing characteristics:

  • Cities like Delhi and Chennai vie with one another for the maximum number of weekly casualties due to road accidents.
  • The (lack of) road etiquette of our drivers is trying to surpass itself by exterminating the elderly by simply bumping them off in road accidents; an elderly (wo)man going for a walk on a sidewalk is easy prey for the sufficiently committed. 
  • A week doesn't go by without some drunk driver running over that poor `vagrant' who had the misfortune of having chosen that spot for sleeping on the pavement!
  • Rather than taking them to school, our schoolbuses run over children on a practically daily basis.
  • Publicised statistics show that more than half our women have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their own relatives.
  • Young men routinely lace drinks of an unsuspecting female acquaintance with some drug, then gang-rape her, capture this bestiality on their cell-phone cameras, and later try to blackmail the poor girl with threats of publicising her indignity.
  • Gangs of hooligans  of the same ilk often turn to `moral policing' to maintain the `decency and purity of our culture' by harassing and pawing young women, be it in Guwahati or in Mangalore.
  • One dreads to imagine what a `mentally ill' woman, kept under lock and key, will be subjected to by her `attendants'. After all, doesn't one often read of policemen getting their jollies with women under `lock-up'?

Not surprisingly, people striving to improve the cause of mentally ill people in our country, ask how long will WE, who are not residing in asylums or such Homes, claim that we ourselves are Sane? and say that  on this 6th of August, we are joining hands with other groups to think about those human beings who are shackled and take a pledge to demand the right to positive mental health of all.

Let me conclude this sorry litany of manifestations of our national collective mental sickness on a positive note by thanking Vaishnavi Jayakumar for suggesting  that I use this column for publicising the passage of a decade after Erwadi and let me salute her for her decades of examplary service in the cause of the mentally ill in particular, and people with disabilities in general.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What is not accessibility

Times of India, Aug 04, 2012

I was witness to this classic equivalent of a `self-goal' in the cause of disability sensitisation. As part of their ongoing efforts to bring world-class neurologists to come and lecture to us right here in Chennai on various issues, our local (and quite distinguished) neurologists had organised a conclave and a lecture by an American expert , on the topic of Multiple Sclerosis. The hotel seemed to have put the odd ramp in place in what seemed an eleventh hour afterthought. The ramp at the entrance was probably of more than the maximum slope safely navigable by my motorised heel-chair. The ramp on the second floor could only be scaled because somebody manually steered the chair from the back.

By the time we entered the room where the conclave was in progress, the hall was filled as far as eye could see with chairs draped in white-cloth; the problem was how to move even five feet away from the entrance door. Somebody spotted my plight and moved some chairs so I could progress a few feet till the next bottleneck and the next good samaritan to help me get past that one, and so on, until we eventually found our way to one of the tables up front, where I saw three other wheel-chairs and felt less of a freak.

When we finally settled down, the secretary of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of India was finishing her report. The next speaker was a young man on crutches who had to painfully hobble his way up the dais - one of my more hated constructs of modern society - to the microphone, where he made many good points.

  1.  He raised the issue/slogan of  `nothing for us, without us'; i.e., if you wish to do something for the betterment of the lives of PWD (people with disabilities), do so {\em only after} ensuring that there are such PWD in the organising committee for such intended reforms. (When buildings, such as the hotel this event had been held in, attempt to render themselves accessible by putting in the odd ramp, can they please talk to some experts in the area of accessibility-related matters, and get meaningful advice on such things as acceptable norms for slopes of such ramps? - (author's remark)
  2. Before buildings, in general, (hotels, etc.) become accessible, can at least our hospitals and labs which run all manners of health-related tests, make efforts to have devices to facilitate PWD, for example, to get on to beds and high places they need to climb onto in order to have X-rays or MRI scans done?
  3. Will all hospitals have at least a few people conversant with standard sign languages to play interpreter between the doctor/technician and hearing/verbally impaired patients? 

When an event is being organised to specifically address a certain disease/disability, does common sense not suggest that many victims of the supposedly target audience will obviously have a common disability (resulting in being on a wheelchair in this case), and should care not be taken to ensure that the event is organised in a barrier-free environment? (Will we ever see one of these?); and to treat these `victims' as `chief guests' and ensure that they have a clear path to a position from which they can get the benefit of the views of the experts on their disease, brought at great cost to the exchequer, regarding their future lives, however long that may be.

And if you ask a PWD to come and speak, is it not your responsibility to ensure that (s)he is not inconvenienced in any way in the process of making that speech?