Saturday, 18 May 2013

Please help us step out of our homes

(Sorry for breaking the promised hiatus - which shall start from today, synchronously with my stay in California. This post began life as a post in Fcaebook, and I thought it needed to be slightly padded and promoted post in this blog.)

In this open letter I wish to make a desperate plea to the Hon. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, because it appears that reason and dialogue can get one nowhere with anything serious or major in this state if it does not have her blessings.

For quite some time now, many of us have been trying to talk to secretaries, officials and dignitaries at various levels, but none of those meetings has led to anything.

A few days ago, I had gone with four other friends - two of us in wheelchairs, and one on crutches - to talk to people in the transport ministry of TN regarding the accessibility standards of their public buses. Vaishnavi, one of the two non-disabled people in our party, started off the discussions with this brilliant salvo to the five or six transport officials we were engaging in the discussion:

I want to ask, of each of you, how many people with disabilities you have known in your schools/colleges? and the response from ALL concerned was ZERO.

And Vaishnavi continued: "at a conservative estimate, 1% of the Indian
population has some manner of disability; have you paused to think why they were not in your schools? Or that the obvious reason staring you in the face is that they have no choice, in view of our public transport system, but to sit at home?"

I have been with Vaishnavi one hot afternoon trying to get some info regarding the Chennai Metro Rail System. We have written subsequent email requests to the concerned secretaries, but there has been no response as yet, from anyone!

At our recent visit to Pallavan House, we were trying to get data on the accessibility of their buses, of the low or semi-low floor buses, the ordering of minibuses that is being considered, and the ‘kneeling varieties’ which are supposed to lower a platform which a wheel-chair user can, in principle, board the buses. We also noticed that the only low-floor buses that have been commissioned are all of the ‘luxury’ and ‘AC’ variety. When asked why this was so, we were told that the bus manufacturers had probably tried to sell off the stock they already had.

One of the officers then kindly offered to let us go down to the depot next door and have a look at such accessible buses as were on hand and could be viewed. In the first `kneeling kind' they had, there was a not very wide metal ranp that was unfolded from inside the bus and swung outside to touch the ground. This ramp was so narrow and so steep that my friend Rajiv could get into the bus on his manual wheelchair only after my driver Sekar pushed him up the ramp; and my motorised wheelchair simply refused to climb the slope. 
Sudha, Rajiv and Sekar

Meenakshi and helper

Then we were shown another bus of a local design which was as much of a non-starter. Meenakshi could get onto the movable lift only with a helper pulling her chair in after him; and after that, they were too heavy for the lift to take them both up.  No wonder we have all been constantly requesting/demanding that there is always an accessibility expert on all decision making bodies! (Nothing for us, without us?)

I told my friends that a head honcho in Ashok Leylands had been a school-mate and friend of my brother who passed away just three months ago; and that I would write to him in the hope that he may remember me (we all went by school bus from the same bus stop for a year), and hope that the memory of my brother might be enough emotional blackmail to make him respond to my query regarding the possible justification for completely denying the disabled proletariat the ability to travel by the cheapest form of public transport. I did write such a letter and the response thus far has been a deathly silence.

Sometimes I think we are romantic thick-headed optimists hoping to find the chink in this wall of callous indifference. How long can we keep banging our heads against the unyielding wall of a bureaucracy, where one periodically sees concern and the desire to help, but everybody but Amma seems to be impotent to take major decisions on the spot?

In conclusion, I ask you: what, in the perception of the Chief Minister of this state, is more important: doing something about the issues discussed above, or building a `Mother Tamil' analogue of the Statue of Liberty at a mind-blowing 100 crore rupees - which to the non-Indian mind is approximately a staggering 2,00,00,000 USD? 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Hiatus

I have been going more than 20 months on the trot writing on this theme - initially as a fortnightly newspaper column, for a little more than a year, and then in this blog, writing almost once a week, for another 9 months. As a friend of mine  says (who is a professional writer) she periodically suffers from writer's cramps. Being at best an amateur part-time writer, I feel I have earned the right to at least a two-week holiday: during this period, I am going to have to navigate international travel, attending a conference, meeting old friends, getting used to the idea of driving a scooter rather than my own tailor-made wheel-chair with its set of convenient gizmos (such as (i) a table I can whip up from the side for the dual purpose of writing notes at a lecture, or using as a convnient place to put coffee cups, beer glasses or plates to eat from, or (ii) a little stand in which I can keep my stick which I need when I need to get out of the chair and walk), and trying to make sure my talk wont fall flat on its face. If these aren't sufficient reasons to rescue my my over-worked mind out of its first amateur writer's cramp, I don't know what are!

Anyway, I hereby give notice that this blog will be in recess until I can shake off this cramp and come back re-vitalised with something fresh to write about. So, au revoir mes amis, `a bientot.

Friday, 3 May 2013

When you dread your `protectors'

I am sorry if I tend to be repeating myself, but flying in planes, especially when it includes flying to the US, has its own attendant set of unpleasant experiences; and by giving vent to my dread/horror/loathing for these pet peeves, I hope to prepare myself mentally for the ordeal ahead.

On most of my domestic travels, I took my battery-operated wheelchair with me, and I have filled enough pages in this blog with the different kinds of hassles which I have undergone as a result of the personnel in charge of airport security and their (own and sometimes very original) interpretations of when a checked-in wheelchair constitutes a security hazard.

But this time, I will be going to spend close to three months in the US and Canada; and subsequent to my discovering the ease with which one is able to hire motorised wheelchairs in the West, I have decided to leave my wheelchair home and depend on (a) the kindness/vagaries with which the concerned airline will arrange to transport me, and (b) my friends/hosts whom I will be visiting all over the US  (from California to the New York island, from the redwood forests...) to quickly get me to such a rental place.

Beyond the usual indignities one suffers in India (eg., having to stand up from the wheelchair while one is frisked), there is a new set that I know I will be subjected to and which I am already beginning to lose sleep over. Anyone who has flown into the US within the past 10 years or so, will know that one of the things you will have to do is to remove your shoes when you go through security at some appropriate intermediate airport. When I went through this some years ago, my mobility was quite a bit better than it is now. I used to be able to hobble a few feet; and what I remember is that after you go barefoot through the security, there is no chair or stool to sit on while you put your footwear back on. Today, there is just no way I can balance on one foot and wear a shoe on the other foot. I am wondering/praying about how people in wheelchairs are asked to do these things.

Another thing: I am a statistical freak. Every time I go through a security check in the US, I am asked politely to step out of the line so that I may be subjected to a more intensive examination, although I am always told that the fact that I happened to be selected for this special treatment was quite accidental and that what decides which passengers are chosen for such special treatment is purely random selection, and that any impression of racial profiling is completely inaccurate!

Wish me luck!

This reminds me of an apocryphal story about the mathematician G.H. Hardy (credited with having `discovered' Srinivasa Ramanujan): He was scared of travel in general; and before one of the more scary travels he was planning, he wrote to a friend of his saying he had a remarkable solution of the Riemann Hypothesis – arguably the most recalcitrant unsolved problem in mathematics ; when he got down from the ship at his destination, he was met by a fleet of reporters wanting to know about his solution, and he gleefully answered that of course he had not solved the problem, and that the only reason for his publicising this bit of fiction was that God would certainly not allow him to get away with such an outrageous claim to fame and would ensure that he got to where he would have to own up to his falsehood!