Friday, 28 December 2012

Scenes we'd like to see!

The title for this post is lifted from a hilarious series of cartoons that used to be carried by (the erstwhile?) MAD magazine, which carried funny but sometimes sadistic, possibly even gross,  depictions of scenes such, for instance, as a fat lady pinching and saying kichy-koo to a baby in a pram and having the baby throw up all over her hand.

The scene I'd like to see was a result of a Christmas lunch I had gone  to, a few days ago,  with an old mathematician friend of mine (whom I first met almost 35 years ago in Santa Barbara) who was visiting Chennai from Toronto. So I had reserved a table for three in a restaurant at one of the better class of hotels. And I had told them in advance, when I reserved the table, that I would be needing a wheel-chair, which they had said they would be glad to provide. All went well till we entered the restaurant, most of which was at an elevated level which necessitated climbing a step or two; providentially, a few tables were at `ground level'. And they only had a buffet and no a la carte options, with all the food spread out on tables at the ground level. So unless we could be found a table at `ground zero', that would mean my getting in and out of the wheelchair to climb up or down a step or two some four or six times by the time I paid what promised to be an over-priced and inflated bill. The manager was obviously not too pleased with having to re-do his earlier arrangement of tables. My wife tried to avoid a scene by suggesting at least three times that `it is only one step' but I was adamant and the final rearrangement that needed to be done turned out to be quite trivially implementable. The reason for my truculence: while  I may be able to take one or two steps off the wheelchair, what about the very large number of people who simply cannot get out of the wheelchair by themselves? Should their existence not be recognisedd?

That got me thinking of this `delightfully attractive' scenario of an almost  Asimov-esque  genre of science fiction. I would love to see these managers with their `only one step' glibness to wake up one day in a world where the analogue of disability was ignorance of mathematics. Thus, when he tried to enter his house, he would be confronted, not by a few steps leading up to his door, but instead by an automated electronic screen which would say: in order to open the door, please state the area of the trapezium enclosed by the four lines described by the equations x=0,  y=0, x=1 and 2x+3y=7; and `normal' people like me would stand by the side with encouraging noises like this is a problem that school children encounter in early exposure to geometry.

And when he wanted to use the rest-room, he would be politely asked to `only' compute the derivative of cosh(2 sin(x)) and four other functions of an equally elementary nature (eg., exp(3x/tanh x) before he could get to the urgent task at hand. 

Just very occasionally, the odd thoughtful hotel would have ensured the existence of one room/toilet, in an entire hotel sprawling over several thousand square feet, which did not make such non-inclusive demands on a potential user who was a mathematical ignoramus. In all the others, you will have to define a Cauchy sequence in a metric space in order to access the wash-basin in a toilet - but, fortunately, this is something everybody picks up in the very first analysis course.

(I should thank the creative irreverence of my student Madhushree Basu for her vivid transformation of the sentiment of my article into the above cartoon in next to no time.)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Signing Away One's Rights

For the third time during my experiences in flying on planes in India, I went through an almost identical experience. While I was waiting in my wheel-chair (provided by the airline) for the boarding call for my flight, one of the uniformed representatives of the airline in question came up and asked my wife to fill and sign some form. As my wife knew I would insist on reading anything supposedly signed by me, she handed over the form to me. When I started examining what I was being asked to sign (It is just something we ask all our wheel-chair passengers to sign, one is told), I found that by signing that document, I was indemnifying the airline of all damages or responsibility for any accident leading to injury and possibly even death resulting from my having flown with them. Nothing in that form says anything about a wheelchair. I asked how come all the other passengers were not also being asked to sign such an `indemnity' statement and I was told this was because mine was a `medical case'. I started raising my voice about this being totally unacceptable discrimination. I told them I would sign it provided they gave me a copy of this form that I was signing - only because this form would hold no legal standing in any court, and because I would like professional advice regarding the legality of requiring people with disabilities to sign such forms. I was assured I would be given such a copy, but after some ten minutes the same airline representatives came and told me they had spoken with a senior officer and he had said this was not necessary, `so I need not worry'. I said I was not worried but only wanted a copy of that form, but my request was politely turned down.

This has happened to me in Kolkata, Chennai and Goa, and with Jet Airlines and Spice Jet. Surely these airlines cannot be within their legal rights in extracting such signatures from unsuspecting persons with disabilities who are only told (if at all they ask what the forms are for) `these are not important, just something we are supposed to get because of the rules'! Their distaste for letting me have a copy of the form they wanted me to sign surely seems to indicate that! I know what I am going to talk about with my lawyer-cum-disability-activist  friend when I meet him on his return from a visit to spend Christmas with his family.

Friday, 14 December 2012

When Herbie goes flying

I like to refer to my motorised wheelchair as Herbie so as to avoid harping on the impersonal `wheelchair'. It is the fact that he has a visible battery to underline his motorised stature that has led to an innumerable number of minor hassles. It is precisely because of the wide range of the hassle-content that I am trying to see if there can't be a simple way out of these hassles. Let me illustrate with some examples of this divergence (in perception and implementation of the rules).

A recent journey of mine involved my flying from Chennai to Tuticorin and later from Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai. The onward journey started by looking problematic. When we went as usual to have our check-in baggage scanned by the x-ray machine, one person asked us to open the battery so he could see if it was a potential hazard. We had to explain that the battery was a dry cell one which couldn't be opened and that what we could do was to just lock the battery and remove the key as well as remove the joy-stick along with the wire connecting it to the battery. Then when we asked (at the time of checking in) where we would be re-united with the partially dis-membered Herbie, we were told it would have to be at the baggage claim because there would be rules about collecting it on the tarmac itself and driving it from there.

And surprise, surprise! When we landed in Tuticorin, and were able to get out of the craft after all the non-handicapped people had done so, imagine my surprise to find that the airport was a really tiny one, and better still, I found Herbie just being removed from the craft. And I had fortunately been allowed to carry the joy-stick in my back-pack after the security personnel at Chennai airport had run it through the x-ray machine a second time to convince themselves that it was not a security-hazard. So I was able to ask the airline staff if I could just drive Herbie off after having connected the joy-stick, and my request was promptly acceded to, with the result that that must have been my fastest exit from an airport after landing! Thank God for small airports, I told myself.

But when we came to Thiruvananthapurum airport, and I tried taking the joy-stick in my back-pack, the security personnel would have none of that. They insisted that it should be checked in and the poor airline staff had to keep them and me happy by doing a make-shift packing job with old newspapers so the joy-stick would not get hurt in transit!

I can go on and on about airports in Hyderabad or Delhi or Mumbai, airlines SpiceJet, Jet Airwys and Air India/Indian Airlines, and the particular twist that the personnel in the particular airport/airline gave to their perception of what is, or is not allowed, but I will spare you the gory details! I just want to know what it will take to get some piece of documentation which will ensure that I am not subject to the vagaries of the mood of the officer at the security check in airports! Can't there be a standard rule adhered to by all airports and airlines - such as the maximum weight allowed per passenger - so the entire experience of flying with Herbie does not resemble a game of Russian roulette?

Friday, 7 December 2012

Whiter than white

A friend of mine invited my wife and me to lunch at her club today, and I inwardly groaned. Do you know that all the clubs where the well-heeled in Chennai hang out of an evening carry on this cultural baggage from the erstwhile British Raj. Originally and for the longest time, our white masters would not permit a brown-skinned native to sully the character of their fair clubs. I don't know the exact facts - which are not hard to find anyway- but if I am not mistaken there were no non-white members of the Madras Club till 1960 almost a decade and a half after the British had returned to Britain! In fact, when it began, it did not even allow white women into its club! Not surprisingly, the Madras Club is considered the most prestigious of all the clubs in Chennai even today.

And here is why I groaned at the prospect of going to one of the clubs: the brown sahibs who rule the roost have their own rules, according to which neither Gandhi nor Nehru would be allowed to enter the premises of one of these clubs. You cannot enter wearing a kurta, or a Tee-shirt unless it has a collar! Now I always go to work in a kurta and always wear shorts and Tee-shirts not hindered by collars on holidays. So I had to dress up in a shirt and pant and feel like I was in a fancy dress. This is India, for crying out loud!

If we have to ape the white man, can we at least copy some of their better traits? Most of UK is very accessible to mobility impaired people, and its people are blessed with a modicum of sensitivity which would anticipate possible problems of anybody who is slightly different. I have not seen a ramp at any of these clubs of ours. It is such a trivial thing to identify places where there are steps, and manufacture some make-shift ramp that can be kept  tucked away somewhere nearby and pulled out whenever someone on a wheelchair comes by. Going by my old memories of Gymkhana Club where I had swum and played tennis as a lad in my teens, I knew that it would be necessary to walk some distance, so I had taken along my motorised wheelchair today. But when you throw in three or five or seven steps every few feet, the whole exercise begins to look like something out of the theatre of the absurd.

So, Tara, if we have to go out for lunch, let us please pick some place which is accessible, where one can go decently but comfortably clad (even if it does not sit well with the brown sahibs who are whiter than the white - and painlessly reach where we need to go)!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

My (non-mathematical) editorial debut

Not long ago, I was asked most politely by this gentleman if I would care to be Guest Editor for one issue of a monthly newsletter on Universal Design that he had been bringing out for a while now, by similarly enlisting guest editors from all over the world, who seemed to have displayed some sensitivity to the need for the principles underlying UD. He had said that all I needed to do was to collect some three or four articles (including one by me, if I so desired), and write a guest editorial.

I agreed to take on this new challenge - on the basis of an unwarranted self-confidence rather than any common sense. But I made him wait for quite a few months before I finally had the necessary inputs for doing the needful; and he was uniformly courteous and encouraging (`I'm sure you can and will do a good job of it!') Anyway, I managed eventually to talk three other people to chip in with the different ingredients that went into a mixed bag which I felt reasonably happy with, and I sent the lot in to the editor. Quite promptly, he sent me back a tentative first draft of the newsletter for which he had written an editorial as usual before putting in all the stuff I had sent.

I was initially slightly disappointed with the output for two reasons: (i)  the long opening editorial was written not by me and I had not even been consulted regarding its inclusion; (I had once before done a similar assignment for a math journal and I had decided whatever went into it;) so (ii) this was not entirely my baby!. But you could see that the writer's heart was in the right place. And when you look at the web-site of the Design for All Institute of India, you notice that he has been bringing out this newsletter for more than six years (that is 72 issues at the rate of one every month!) and has maintained a uniformly high quality all the time. I realised then that my reservations were all a result of my not doing exactly what disability activists keep telling people: `Judge people by what they bring to the table, not by your preconceived notion of what makes a good dish!'

In conclusion. as the `proof of the pudding is in the eating', let me proudly present the November 2012 issue (not the one related to Japan) of the newsletter that can be found in