Friday, 27 July 2012

Two for the price of one

(I am sorry my usual article in the newspaper column could not appear today due to some misunderstanding about acceptable length of article, etc. But I decided, nevertheless to put up the piece in my blog.)

I want to give a different slant to the phrase in the above title, which is customarily used as a ploy by merchants wanting to induce customers to buy their ware(s). I, on the other hand, want to celebrate the fact that this column has just completed one year of existence, by making a plea for a similar discounting practice', to  appropriate quarters in our Government.

To set the ball rolling, let me recall something I learnt close to forty ago when I was very impressed by the implied sensitivity of our Government. A friend of mine in College was blind, and he told me that when he had to travel, not only was he entitled to a concession in view of his visual impairment, but even that if he wished to take another person with him, the two people could travel at the same cost that any one `normal' person could travel on. I remember thinking then that it was wonderful that our Government was so sensitive as to entitle him to an accompanying person to give him any desired help without having to pay essentially anything extra for that person's travel!

Much more recently, I was to remember this fact to good effect. It turns out that I have, of late, been receiving a named fellowship which entitles me to a contingency grant which is so generous that it can cover a lot of my travel costs (related to my academic work, naturally), even including some amount of international travel. However, due to my own mobility constraints, I found that I was turning down several invitations to conferences. Then I remembered my friend having been at the receiving end of the entitlement to take along a `carer'. So I asked the director of my institute if I could not also be the recipient of such a benevolent provision. He said I should ask the agency (DST) which funded my fellowship if that was acceptable. So I wrote to ask the big man (the then secretary of the DST) if it would indeed be acceptable for me to take my wife with me whenever I travelled on work - and charge the cost of her travel also to this fellowship - as I am constantly in need of her assistance. To my great relief and unexpected pleasure, prompt came the reply in the form of an unconditional green signal. So, I have been able to maintain a fair amount of my academic activity which involves travel, this having been unthinkable but for this far-sighted official, who behaved unlike so many of our bureaucrats who demand of disabled people that they produce a certificate at periodic intervals of time which certify (with the necessary attestation of some large number of dignitaries) that they still suffer from such-and-such handicap!

It goes without saying that I am exceptionally privileged to have such accommodating bureaucrats to deal with. This is not necessarily the case in even all reputed research institutions. It has been my endeavour, for some time now, to use whatever leverage I might be able to extract from such recognition as I have in the academic world in India, to bully people into  conducting access audits of their campuses. I use this column (quite shamelessly at times!) and whatever powers of emotional blackmail I can rustle up to achieve the desired end. Some time back I employed such `hitting-under-the-belt' tactics with a sister Math Institute in Chennai, and they have been very responsive and are in the process of having their campus audited even as I write. I tried to use this as a lever to suggest that a reputed science institute in Bangalore ask the accessibility expert (whose travel from Delhi to Chennai and back had  been funded by the institute in Chennai) to conduct a similar exercise at their institute now, as they would only need to pay her Chennai-Bangalore-Chennai airfare. I have been cribbing to the mathematicians at this institute that I cannot access a single lecture room in their department, and they have been promising me that they will fix this. I am told they recently went through a `renovation/expansion' of their department, but they still do not have an elevator to facilitate my accessing any of their lecture halls. But my hope of their getting the expert from Delhi to help them clean up their act was dashed for the simple reason that their accounts people did not see any reason to pay for two plane tickets to get somebody to come and do the desired exercise, rather than getting some expert from Bangalore - which they have not done for decades/centuries! The fact is that this expert is wheel-chair-bound and needs a `carer' to travel with her.

The purpose of this article is not to merely give bad press to  this Bangalore institute, but to ask why the Government should not have the rule in place for air travel today that they had at least 40 years ago for train travel - which is to enable a person who needs to travel with a carer/attendant to travel with that carer at the cost of one ticket!  (After all, the cost of a train ticket then, would probably buy more than a plane ticket today!)

If a relative of a President or Union Minister can make routine trips abroad at the taxpayer's cost, can't this perk be extended to a care-giver of a scientist, and in fact, of just any Indian citizen who needs such an attendant?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Time for some sensitivity

Times of India, July 14 2012

 The responses I have had for one of my recent articles in this column - on the travails of the hearing impaired - have been a real eye-opener. It is almost as if the flood-gates had been waiting to be opened. Let me reproduce some of these, to give you an idea of just how long the authors of these emails must have been bottling up various causes for frustration and anger.

(a) A mother of a hearing impaired son writes:

It is so true that  ‘hearing impairment is not overtly visible to people’ and because of this it  is not even considered an impairment vis-a-vis physical impairment/ mental impairment  or visual impairment.  Actually it is a double impairment – not being able to hear clearly and not being able to speak clearly. There are many hearing impaired who have overcome their disability with the help of technology, support of care-givers and enough financial resources to use the first two. Some tips that might help a normal person communicate with a hearing handicapped person effectively are:

  • Get the person's attention before attempting to talk or communicate.
  • Stay in their field of vision. Make eye contact.
  • Establish the gist of what you are going to talk about.
  • Your speech will be more easily understood when you are not eating, chewing, smoking, etc.
  • Keep your hands away from your face while talking.
  • Don't talk too fast.  Pronounce words clearly.
  • Have them repeat the specifics back to you. Many numbers and words sound alike.
  • In case of failure in communication,  try to find a different way of saying the same thing, rather than repeating the original words over and over.
  • Keep a note pad handy, and write your words out and show them to the person if you have to.
  • Use gestures and visual cues.

And she also adds:

A program ‘Sathymev Jayathe’ highlighting the problems faced by People with Disabilities, would have been truly more touching if it had had sub-titles for the hundreds of hearing impaired who were watching the show. This show which is creating awareness about so many issues would have been interesting for these people also.

In fact, more of our TV shows (News, Sports channels covering topical events like IPL, Wimbledon Championships, UEFA Euro Cup, etc.) should seriously consider close captioning their telecasts!

(b) A teacher, with a hearing impediment, says:

I am a deaf person since childhood. In my early childhood I was left to my grandmother. My most beautiful memories are associated with her. That illetrate lady with her unconditional love has given me so much strength that I am capable of handling any adverse or favourable condition with appropiate attitude. I am a faculty in my organization.Though as a matter of its policy, deaf people are not assigned to be a faculty, I was adamant to be one. Now for me every new batch for training is a new challenge to handle. When I enter a classroom with hearing-aid chord dangling on my chest and masking units  inserted in both my ears, I find it a thrill to observe the body language and facial expressions of all participants. How different we human beings are in our reactions to physiological inadequacy of a fellow human!

It is apparent, from such an outpouring of sentiment, that there is a whole section of people whose problems have been ignored/overlooked for (too) long, only because their disability is not overtly recognisable as one, and that it is high time that `normal people' started being more sensitive to their problems!