Friday, 26 April 2013

Following the Robert Bruce example

During one of my recent but infrequent travels out of Chennai, when I knew I would be spending some time in Mumbai, I wrote to some of my math friends at IIT(B)– who always seem to be happy to have me come and lecture at their place - that I would be in their environs and be glad to talk to their department on the unexpected pleasures one may glean periodically from non-commutative probability; and they did not disappoint me.

One of them is Jugal Verma, a former head of the math department at IIT(B), who is quite aware of the campaign I have espoused to sensitise people to the world of people with disabilities. In fact it was about 18 months ago that I wrote a piece in a column I then wrote for ToI about how it would be wonderful if the `exalted institutes of higher learning' would serve as role models for (a) accessible and barrier-free environments, and (b) observing road etiquette. And at 6 am on the Saturday that this piece appeared, I sent e-mails to the heads of some 18 such institutions with copies of this piece, requesting them to do their bit towards making their institutes accessible. Knowing well that `head honchos' often consign such mails to some underling and then forget about it, I had the foresight to also mark copies of my emails to sympathetic senior friends (such as Jugal) in the pertinent math departments, asking them to `push the thing along'. Instantly I received an e-response (of about 3 lines of appreciation for my efforts, and two lines directing some sub-committee to take suitable action, from the director of IIT(B), appended to a long e-mail from Jugal pleading for an elevator in the math dept., where he was mortified to regularly see people with mobility problems being carried up the stairs by their friends!

This time around, Jugal arranged for me to (a) be met at the airport, (b) brought to IIT, and (c) arranged the lecture in one of the few venues accessible to a speaker in a wheelchair! This was a non-standard venue, in the guest house, in fact. As I got down from the car and into my wheelchair, Jugal proudly pointed to the ramp leading into the guest house and said `this is one of many such ramps which came up soon after you wrote to the director!' After my lecture, we were all invited for some coffee and snacks on the verandah outside.

Now the verandah outside is a step down – about a foot (only one small step) – and there was no dearth of volunteers offering to lift the wheelchair and carry it down with me in it! But I haven't got to where I am now without making a fuss when that seemed to be called for. The manager of the guest house tried to arrange some planks in a suitable configuration whereby getting down only needed small steps down of just a few inches, so I managed to get down to have my samosa and coffee and chat with my many friends there. When the time came to retrace one's `steps', going up was not as trivially manageable, and I finally got down and hobbled up the step, while others lifted my wheelchair up.

So, with an apology to my colleagues, I said I was going to write again to their director to describe my experiences. Which is exactly what I did: I wrote to him (with a copy marked to Jugal) reminding him of my writing to him a few years ago, and of how I had been glad to notice the ramp he had been instrumental in making available in the guest house; I then went on to explain how I had made a fuss about the verandah not being accessible, because the point to be underlined was that a serious effort must be made to provide a barrier-free and inclusive environment, where everybody (with or without disabilities) would be able to contribute to society, with dignity and independence. If an access audit of the campus had been done before putting in the token ramps at periodic intervals, as I had suggested in my newspaper column at the very beginning, some more ramps would have been put in, as desired. Even now, at many places like this, it will be trivial and cost basically nothing, to have a carpenter put in a wooden ramp with a triangular cross section, which could be kept when needed, and `hidden away' at other times!

(Just today, I saw one:  
such a make-shift ramp in a small 2-room scanning centre in Chennai

Surely, an army of engineers who do rigorous spells in workshops during the first year of their programme at IIT's can take a quick survey on where, and of what dimensions, such ramps are needed and have such aids in position within the month - as against the eighteen months since I first wrote to the director.)

I can make a safe wager that if anybody shows me their home or club or mall, I will show many many places where such make-shift measures would tremendously help the lot of the wheelchair-bound. I assure you that you don't need a Ph.D. to be able to see these things I am talking about.  So why can't `normal' people at least occasionally see the world through `not-so-normal eyes' and see how some easy modifications can make a world of difference for the `abnormal' people?


  1. Very curious to know how/why this 'small scanning center' had the vision to install the ramp.

  2. With due respect you are not a 'wheel-chair bound' but a 'wheel-chair user' Sir. Wishing you a great trip ahead.

    1. You and I know that; but do `they' know the difference? I have found that if the occasional exaggeration/white lie makes the message get across, it makes sense to be guilty of this mild mis-statement of reality