Friday, 29 March 2013

Continuity better than piecewise linearity

This is going to be a short post, as my entire past week was spent interviewing potential future doctoral students which was tiring, emotiomally and physically draining and slightly depressing. In the middle of this week,  I was asked by our registrar about making  a decision regarding what needed to be done about rendering our auditorium more accessible.

And that got me dreaming:

One has often heard it said that the wheel is one of Man's greatest inventions. The very circular smoothness of the wheel is in stark contrast to the abrupt contours of the stairway. It is tempting to say, dually that the step is Man's most non-inclusive brain-child. Life would have been so simple for us if people had built slopes rather than steps.

Just imagine a row of chairs, built with the rear leg just that much shorter than the front leg so that the seats were horizontal and the floor sloped continuously. Why can't architects of the future adopt this simple principle in future constructions so somebody on a wheelchair could go straight up to her seat? To complete the inclusivity, there should be periodic gaps (satisfying international standards for widths of wheel-chairs in the rows of chairs, and there would be sufficient space between rows so people could wheel their chairs into their spots without having some flunky help them ostentatiously thereby denying the sense of independence of the person in the wheel-chair). It is said accurately that there are no handicapped people but people who are handicapped by an inconsiderate environment with barriers.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Ocean of knowledge

Recently I had an unexpectedly pleasant and heart-warming experience. I had been badgering the administration of my institute for some time to effect several changes to make our campus more accessible. In order to be more effective, I had bullied my way to being chairman of the `refurbishment committee'. Some of the tasks still facing us were having accessible toilets, lifts to access some parts of the campus which still remain out of reach to people like me, etc. There had been some interaction between my institute and Vidya Sagar (the literal translation of which is the title of this post) an organisation working on multiple fronts in the search for an inclusive society for children with various kinds of disabilities. In a flash of inspiration, my institute had requested Vidya Sagar to have some of its kids to give free expression to their uncluttered minds and do the decorations - paintings, murals, etc. - for an exhibition we were planning on the event of our institute becoming 50 years old. A colleague, who was part of the team `liaising' with the teachers at Vidya Sagar, had been telling me about some transportable ramps they used for their children, and which we might want to consider using to solve some of our problems.

By a coincidence (which was surely meant to happen), I ran into Usha Ramakrishnan, the president of the executive Committee of Vidya Sagar at an event organised by a common friend last Sunday. So I told her I'd like to visit Vidya Sagar with some of our administrators and take some tips on accessibility. She was happy to invite me to come;  I do believe it will be a productive visit....its a joyful accessible place were her clairvoyant words!

I promptly took up her offer, and called her the next day (Monday) to see if I could come the very next day (Tuesday) to Vidya Sagar along with some of the administrative officers in my institute, and she promptly iterated her invitation saying even though she would not be there then, she would arrange for someone to show us around. So some six of us went Tuesday afternoon and explained the reason for our presence to the pleasant gentleman sitting in what looked like a security cabin/reception. He called somebody and presently a charming young woman, a special educator at Vidya Sadan, as it turned out, came along and was most accommodating about taking us around, explaining what they did in the rooms at different levels, as well as allowing me the thrill of going all the way up to the second floor on a ramp. I could have gone further, but I did not want to tire out the people with me.  The ramp just went up inconspicuously, at a gentle gradient, all the way up along the walls. Talk of universal design: this was heaven! And I had the pleasure of seeing accessible toilets on each floor - while our institute does not have even one in the entire campus as of now.  All the children we met were so friendly, too,  and thrilled at seeing the new faces. Usha knew what she was talking about!

And our charming hostess Uma answered all our many questions as well as showed us the transportable ramps which, as it turned out, were made by Callidai Motor Works (who had made my motorised wheelchair). By another coincidence, I once wrote on this place (manned almost entirely by people with some manner of disability). And that piece started by describing the genesis of my meeting the people who run this wonderful outfit - which was at the house of a wonderful lady for whose husband Callidai had created a really custom-made wheel-chair. And this lovely lady Kalyan had been so delighted at this piece of mine which ToI had published, but she most unexpectedly passed away just a few days later. Thus I had been bestowed the honour of having been one of the last people to bring back that twinkle in her eye. And the event at which I ran into Usha last Sunday was a celebration of Kalyan's life, and the common friend of Usha's and mine was Kalyan's twin sister Anand.

Now you know the reason for the bold-face parenthetical comment in the second paragraph! (By yet another coincidence, Kalyan and Anand have both been principals of, as well as taught me at, the school where, as a five or six year-old boy, I began the road to knowledge.)

Friday, 15 March 2013

An inveterate soldier

This is a tribute to the never-say-die attitude with which Dr. Satendra Singh has been single-handedly (single-leggedly?) fighting the existing exclusive attitude towards the need (or the lack thereof) of a barrier-free environment to facilitate the mere functioning of people with disabilities in general, and mobility problems in particular. Here is a medical doctor with a mobility problem – whereby climbing stairs, for instance, is a problem he would much rather avoid.

Let me chronologically list various causes he has espoused since I had the pleasure of getting to know him a mere sixteen months ago:

  1. We have all heard of the appalling incident when Jeeja Ghosh's cerebral palsy was interpreted by the pilot of a plane as a potential hazard to the lives of his passengers to such an extent that he found it necessary to have her removed from the plane. But it took Satendra (as I have given myself the liberty of informally calling/referring to him) a bare couple of days to write (see to the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities appealing to him to take suo moto notice of newspaper report and take serious action against the pilot and Spice Jet.
  2. Here's what he has to say about some of his subsequent activities: I was appointed the Coordinator of a defunct, on paper Enabling Unit for students with disabilities. It was June last year. Since then I have tried to do few little things. Sharing with you all the activities of Enabling Unit, UCMS & GTB Hospital. (see here)
  3. He next tried to do something about a ridiculous bit of red tape our bureaucrats throw at us by demanding that in order to be able to avail of certain exemptions/benefits that are available on paper to people with disabilities, such people have to periodically obtain a renewal of disability certificate. (And you can be sure this certificate can be collected only after almost always having to negotiate a walk up to a dingy little office on the second or third floor of a building with no elevator! He sent numerous emails and letters to numerous luminaries in Delhi University, but you can imagine how receptive the authorities have been!
  4. Next, he took on ( see here) the Post Offices asking about the state of accessibility of their offices. Many of the responses he received were total untruths or fabrications of a sick mind. According to a report in the Times of India, the reply of the Indian Post asserted that the Gulmohar Park Post Office was `barrier-free despite the fact that it is located in a basement which can be reached only by going down a flight of stairs due to the absence of a lift or ramp. The truth quotient of the rest of the response was apparently comparable.
  5. His latest salvo seems to have evoked a response with more teeth. He wrote a letter to the chief secretary, Delhi government, to take concrete and time-bound steps for enforcing accessibility standards and guidelines with utmost strictness, making budgetary provisions in each department for the purpose of providing barrier-free access to persons with disabilities, and undertake access audit and implementing recommendations of the access audit reports. And the good news is: The office of the chief commissioner for persons with disabilities has asked Medical Council of India (MCI) to issue directions for barrier-free access of disabled people at all colleges and hospitals. It has also asked MCI to inform the court about the action taken within 30 days of getting the letter.

And this is what he wrote to me in a recent email:

The one month time limit is already over. MCI instructions apply to all
medical colleges and hospitals in India (private as well as public). If
access audits are made mandatory by MCI than it will bring a major
revolution in terms of accessible health care in India. Overnight people
construct new buildings to satisfy MCI and get recognition. This move has
the potential to create huge ripple effect. Do support me and pressurize MCI.

Although he has an inflated impression of my capabilities, what I can do is to promise to try and help him by at least asking the rest of us who are interested in the causes that Satendra has been espousing dauntlessly, in the face of callous disregard to the word of the law, to start some kind of more visible protest/campaign to force the government to stop paying lip service to the alleged law of the land and to put its money where its mouth is.  

Friday, 8 March 2013

Abject Surrender to the gas guzzler

A few weeks back, I wrote about my wisdom in committing long ago to write something only once in two weeks, in anticipation of feeling periodically like the Beatles song which goes 

I've got nothing to say, but it's okay; good morning, good morning.

But then I thought I should not make a habit of giving this excuse, so here goes, for whatver it is worth:

One of the earliest pieces I wrote concerned what is called OMR or Rajiv Gandhi Salai or the IT corridor of Chennai. I grumbled then about how it was essentially impossible for a wheel-chair -bound person to cross this road with at least 3 kms between pedestrian crossings. (And you must be very daring or stupid or both to attempt crossing even those in view of the manner in which buses and SUVs go speeding across the zebra crossings even when they have a red light.)

Earlier there were two options for the able-bodied: (i) you could cross the road by using one of the three pedestrian over-bridges located at intervals of a kilometre – in which case you would have to climb up some thirty-odd steps and then back down the same number after crossing the road on the over-bridge – or (ii) dash across the road when there was a lull in the traffic. If you were rash enough to take the second option, you always ran the risk of getting knocked down, maybe even killed, by one of the many speeding vehicles.
You obviously can't have that in a `civilised' major city.

So what solution does our brilliant traffic department come up with. Remove the earlier mentioned second option by having no breaks in the middle of this road (OMR) for a stretch of 17 kms. Or at least this is what one newspaper announced a few days ago. Our town planners obviously don't give a damn about an elderly man with 70-year old knees which protest noticeably whenever steps need to be ascended or descended and who is not rich enough to own a car or a two-wheeler. The city is clearly built only for the complement of such people. The writing on the wall is clear: you may live here only if you are equipped with a vehicle that can take you whizzing along for miles and miles; there is certainly no room for pedestrians.

You'd imagine we are a uniformly very wealthy nation of twenty year-olds. If you had any sort of mobility problems, get ready to live all day every day within the four walls of your house. So here is a new answer to the old chestnut about why the chicken crossed trhe road: to celebrate the fact that she did not live in India!

This cry of desperation is an open call to our chief minister who (i) is apparently the only person capable of doing anything drastic in Chennai, and (ii) is adulatingly called `Amma; or mother by all the cadre of her political party. Oh Amma, I want you to know that my own Amma would have kicked the bucket before crossing OMR on foot, while I myself will be unable even get started crossing the road (because I haven't solved the problem of how my wheelchair would get off the pavement and on to the treacherous zebra crossing). 

Friday, 1 March 2013

The American stair fixation

I had always been led to believe that the US was probably the most accessible nation in the world - until I observed the following singularity in their sensitivity. This concerns the standard design for houses in America. And that is that almost all bedrooms in almost all houses are on the first floor (actually second floor as per their nomenclature - i.e., not the ground floor), and the typical house does not have elevators;  and if, by some miracle, there does exist a bedroom downstairs, it will almost surely not have a shower downstairs!

This disturbing fact was brought home to me in striking fashion the following way. It turns out that I have been invited to conferences/workshops in Berkeley in May, and in Toronto in July. Rather than flying back and forth across the globe twice, I thought I would use the opportunity to take a holiday visiting various friends and relatives in the US. That is when I did a quick memory check on the various houses I had spent time in during past visits to the US.

For instance, when I was visiting Iowa some years ago, we stayed in this house - very quaint - but nevertheless one with bedrooms only in the first floor and a shower only in the basement, thus necessitating about 50 steps down and then back up after the shower. And these days, even just the very act of having a shower takes so much energy out of me that I totter the 10 feet on level ground (in my home) to my bed straight after the shower, and lie flat on my back for some 5 minutes before I am halfway ready to face the world. I would have died if I had had to undergo that Iowa experience now!

So I wrote to a bunch of people saying the same thing - that I would like to be able to spend some time with them in June; and would it be possible to stay with them -  provided they had a bedroom and full bathroom (including a shower) on the ground floor of their house - or stay at an accessible hotel near their home?

And these were all people with whom I knew I could take the liberty of inviting myself to their place, and be warmly welcomed to stay with them. Taking this group of people's responses as a sample (albeit probably not a large enough one to be considered statistically significant), it appears that at most 1 in 4 American houses can have a wheel-chair-bound resident visit or live in them!

Will the American architects please wake up and think?