Sunday, 30 September 2012

How I shot myself in the leg, literally

First off, I apologise for the poor pun. (I don't know what it is that draws Indian mathematicians to puns - `the poorer the pun the better' seems to sum up the attitude! Suri, Paramu and Balaji are all, for instance, masters at this game!)

Talking of math, which signifies numbers to most people, today (Sept. 29th, 2012) should have seen the 29th article being published in my fortnightly column Different Strokes for Different Folks that has been carried for more than a year now in the newspaper editions in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore of the Times of India. But this happy coincidence was not to be, because I was informed just last week that for various reasons - such as the sky-rocketing rupee-dollar exchange rate, the consequent rise in price of newsprint, possible stylistic reservations about there being too much `me' in the column - the editors had decided to move my column from the newspaper format to the online format. Sure enough, I looked in vain for my column in today's newspaper, and then by a roundabout route I discovered where the online version could be found.

Ironically, the 28th instalment in my newspaper column was devoted to technologically disabled people who, for instance, were not comfortable with computers, email, etc. I am periodically contacted by some regular readers of my column who request me to mail them a copy of an article they had managed to miss. More than one reader was not too delighted when I answered that the whole collection could be accessed online in at least two places, for both of  which I provided e-addresses. One reader specifically said she did not have access to a computer.  I feel quite terrible that I have never really had a chance to tell people like her - from among many of my reading public (who are often more than 70 years old) - that I am grateful for their support, but unfortunately they will not be able to read any more of my stuff because they do not access the internet. Since I now have no way of explaining to them the reason why my column is missing from the customary spot on the op.-ed. page which it occupied for more than a year now, I request any of their contacts or friends who is reading this to convey the news of why that is so.

In case you are wondering about the title of this piece, I am wondering if my last article might have preempted the decision of the editors to move `my strokes' to what might be an e-black hole for many! In fact, I am beginning to worry about having agreed to ToI publishing my column only online and not in newsprint. On the one hand, as was pointed out to me by the editors, my articles will reach a much larger number of people than my blog will; but on the other hand, does this arrangement not, I ask myself, go against the grain of my column's  raison d'etre of the need for an inclusive society?

I guess I am seeking some sort of reassurance that this step (of forsaking a few in the interest of gaining a lot elsewhere) does not constitute some manner of capitulation. Some of my friends have been telling me that I should not lose sight of the fact that maximising the number of people my column can  reach should be the goal. I hope they are right!

Friday, 28 September 2012

My personal Santa

September 29, ToI Online

I just got back from a two-week visit to UK, and I wish to write about the extraordinary efforts made by one individual to have made this trip a reality.

It all started with this mathematician friend of mine insisting that I should come to a conference he was organising in Wales, with the promise that he would make absolutely sure that everything was arranged in an accessible way. (He also happens to be a ardent follower of this column and my blog!) He wanted to facilitate my attending this conference at the relatively small Aberystwyth University if at least to sensitise the University enough to create the infrastructure necessary to enable a person with disabilities to attend a conference there and be entirely independent in doing so.

What was also attractive about the invitation was the possibility of augmenting the conference with a week's holiday driving around Scotland with my family in a rented car equipped  with automatic transmission - which convenience eliminates the need for a clutch pedal and work for my left leg, which is the `game one'. And I really looked forward to this throw-back to times when I could drive my family around.

And Claus, this friend in Wales (who is in fact a lean German and,  in spite of his white hair and beard, is totally unlike the usual picture one has of Santa) was simply marvelous. He truly understands the need/desirability of a person like me being able to function in as independent a manner as is possible. He had arranged rentals of wheel-chairs, both a motorised one for use during the first week in Wales, and a manually operated one that could be conveniently taken in the car during our planned driving excursion in the second week - always after consulting with me (we probably exchanged about 125 emails in two months!). And he had organised a shuttle to take the delegates from our hotel to the conference venue, making sure to order a vehicle which had the facility of enabling me to drive my wheel-chair up a ramp and into the shuttle. On top of everything else, he drove a rented car from Aberystwyth in Wales to the wheel-chair rental place which was about 50 miles south of Birmingham, picked up the wheelchair, then picked us up at Birmingham airport, and drove us back to Aberystwyth. And what is most striking about this act of kindness was that this must have chewed up from noon to 7 pm on the Sunday immediately preceding the start of a very successful and well-attended conference that he had done most of the organising for. And for the icing on the cake, he made reservations for us at a hotel in walking distance from Birmingham airport for the night before the 0630 departure of our return flight from UK, and of course, again dropped us back at Birmingham airport - after dropping off the rented wheelchair, this time sacrificing his time from 2 pm to 12 pm on a Friday. All because he understood what I have been trying to say in this column, and wanted to rubbish my statement to him some months ago that the days of my country-hopping to attend conferences was over!

You cannot imagine how therapeutic it is to be able to: (a) travel through a town for distances close to  2 kilometres (being the distance from the University to the Hotel we were put up at) unaccompanied on a wheelchair (thanks to the Welsh infrastructure making sure that the pavements were equipped with convenient ramps to get onto the road from them; contrast this with which describes the situation in our capital!);  and (b) drive approximately 1500 miles (from Wales to Scotland and back) all on my own. I cannot think of anybody doing so much for another person with no ulterior motive, and only because he was convinced that it was important to enable me to attend the conference with a modicum of `independence'! The world would be a far more livable place for people with disabilities, if it had more people with the sensitivity of this extraordinary friend of mine.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Technologically disabled

Times of India, September 15, 2012

How often have you seen a five year-old pick up a mobile phone or a remote control, and soon start surfing the possibilities with the aplomb and dexterity of a born engineer? Likewise, you must have seen how gingerly a 60 year-old picks up the same object, almost afraid it might explode at any moment. I want to talk about the technologically disabled, typically post-middle aged person who is often treated like an imbecile for not knowing how to take to these electronic gizmos like a fish to water, and some of the ways modern society tends to alienate such people!

As I have been invited to a conference to be held in Wales in about a month's time, I would like to take this opportunity to rent a car and take my family on a driving holiday to Scotland. While this seems a great notion on paper, one needs to undergo the grim realities of the visa procedure. In the past, I have exercised a stoic patience as I filled three forms (one each for my wife, my daughter and me), each with anything up to 10 pages of questions of the most annoying kind. (For example, there is always the question which asks if you have travelled anywhere out of your country in the last 10 years, and if so, to detail when, where, and for what reason you went to each of those places - and typically leaving only enough space in the form for three such visits. So you will have to get out current and past passports to answer these questions faithfully and omitting no details, however minute, lest you be accused of falsifying data!)

This time, when I tried to locate the necessary forms with he help of Google, imagine my horror when I found that people from `some countries' have to fill their forms `online'. I wonder how much experience you have with people or organisations leaving you no way other than doing things `online', especially when the home-pages of these organisations are a maze where locating information is virtually impossible. And one is always scared lest one mistakenly presses some wrong key and the `on-line form' would have vanished before you printed out a copy! Why, one wonders, is such a treatment reserved only for people from `some countries'. Is it because Jairam Ramesh and Abdul Kalam should be expected to be more computer savvy than Mitt Romney and George W. Bush?

One of my brothers refuses to use email, but he does use a mobile phone. My wife, on the other hand, never uses email or a mobile phone, and is quite happy to never have to use the computer. But how long will our ultra-modern society permit anachronistic beings like my brother or wife to exist thus? Maybe such existence will soon be proclaimed to be an act of treason.

While explaining the concept of Universal Design to me, a friend once told me: At its core is inclusion, which demands of people to practice values that include diversity and difference as adding richness to life. The phenomena of `survival of the fittest', religiious faith and language have, in some way, contributed to alienating human beings from this value. Or putting it slightly differently, and less elegantly: Can you imagine Thoreau's plight if he were forced to make Walden pond wifi enabled?