Saturday, 28 December 2013

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings

Let me shift gears and toggle from pessimistic to optimistic and report on a couple of things I experienced not too long ago.

The first such happy event occurrred a few days before I got to Bangalore. I had been invited to lecture at an event (Anusandhan 2013) organised on the occasion of the bicentennary celebrations of Presidency University (nee College). Attending this event would mean my going to Kolkata for just a couple of days and directly fly to Bangalore the evening before the conference that was chronicled in the previous posts. But what made me accept this invitation was: (a) the entire event was being organised by students - including deciding on the programme, getting sponsors to fund the event, etc.. and (b) their responding to my announcing the need for `reasonable accommodation' in order to account for my mobility problems, by promptly changing the originally planned reservation in Calcutta Club (probably unchanged since colonial times and full of steps everywhere without a sign of a ramp) to the `Peerless Inn', a hotel in Esplanade with ramps, elevators and other modern amenities, and (c) their promising to have the SUV-type Tavera (large enough to easily transport my wheel-chair and our luggage) at my disposal from the time of our arrival till our departure at Kolkata University. And every time we traveled anywhere, we were escorted by a a bright young student, often even younger than our daughter; and when I said they did not have to inconvenience themselves on our account as there must be plenty of other work that might need them, I was sweetly told that they always accorded this hospitality to all their guests. We would be escorted through routes in the university which were accessible to my wheel-chair, and served lunch in the office of an equally hospitable assistant registrar. Here is one shot I managed to get of an idyllic garden in the college

 as we went from that room to the lecture hall - and these kids had made sure there were ramps wherever needed and never gave me an occasion to feel part of a traveling freak show!

And just yesterday, we had gone to meet and have lunch with Siva who had come from Bangalore where he (i) had been a student of some Master's level courses I taught long ago at ISI, (ii) joined ISI as a faculty member almost a decade after (i) above; (he sought my advice from UBC at Vancouver where he was a Post-Doc. then, as to where in India he should apply to, as he was ready to come back home); (iii) continues to thrive in ISI after having followed my advice to turn down a job offer from IISc a few years later (when they made him an offer at exactly the same level he was already working in at ISI, expecting him to take up the offer purely because of the location and `prestige' of IISc!) (iv) still was, was when we collaborated on a book, which has been very well-received, if I may say so myself; (v) was recognised for his work by being awarded the Bhatnagar Award last year. Anyway, he is now married and has a daughter, the apple of his eye, a three or four year-old, who has him twisted around her little finger. The point of this story is this: the last time she had seen me was when I was in my wheelchair, and she remembered me as the `thatha (grandfather/old man) who had given her some fish', when Siva tried to explain to her who they were going to be meeting for lunch, And as they entered the restaurant, after climbinng the  mandatory number of steps, she apparently asked Siva the obvious question troubling her: `But Appa, how will Sunder thatha come up these steps?' Maybe there is hope for future generations of people with disabilities, after all!

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A post-script to my last post

I missed a couple of points:

As you approach the Faculty Hall from the road, there is a line of potted plants spaced about 3 ft apart. I could just squeeze in, with the leaves of shrubs scratching my legs as I did.

The Conference Dinner was held (fortunately) on the lawns of the JNC Guest House, but access to this lawn has a funky design, with iron chains placed in such a devious manner that the only way in is to get out of the chair and hobble out past this maze-like hurdle, while some two people bodily carry the chair across. And when one needs to use the facility, one has to get to the entrance of the building and again have somebody help lift the chair up the step that needs to be negotiated.

I wonder if things would have been any more accessible in the guest house of IISc. Is there a hope that there will be some ramps and accessible toilets there before the next century? I would not wager heavily on such a happy ending!

What is particularly discomforting is that everytime one needs to execute one of these delicate manoeuvres, there will be some ten people standing around solicitously standing by and trying to help - and one has to ask them to stop, and do only such-and-such, and to not press down at arbitrary places, as the wheel-chair has got reduced to a state of barely hanging together, since many vital bushes invariably get missing every time the chair was checked in through one of the two or three flights we had made in coming from Chennai.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The mother of all institutes

I am afraid I am going to return to the theme that got me started writing on (lack of) accessibility in some of our premier institutions. It started with my writing to Current Science about the totally inaccessible nature of the JN Tata Auditorium, where the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) likes to have its periodic meetings. I personally handed over that manuscript  to the then Chief Editor of CS who also happened to be the director of IISc. I even requested him to use his good offices to have the IISc made disabled friendly.

And now, more than two years later, I have come to attend a conference being organised by some of my friends in Bangalore. I was supposed to give a plenary lecture, to be held at the `Faculty Hall' where the IAS used to hold its annual meetings before some genius thought of using the J N Tata Auditorium for that purpose. So, a few weeks before the event, I let my mind run over what it remembered of this hall, and promptly wrote to one of my organiser friends to say that as far as I could recall, there was no ramp to get on to the dais, and I asked him if he would kindly take look to see if any good samaritan had changed the state of accessibility of this lecture hall (although I wasn't very hopeful). I even pointed him to a link to an  earlier post in this blog where I was griping about a visit to IIT Bombay in which I had suggested how simple tailor-made ramps could be made by anybody with minimal carpentry skills  - with a photograph of a sample I had seen in a scanning centre in Chennai.

I can say without a shadow of doubt that the IISc is the most disabled unfriendly among all the `more reputed' centres of higher learning that I have visited. The current visit hs left me so disgusted that I have promised myself that I will never again come to a conference in IISc. Let me try and justify this extreme disenchantment, by explaining the sample day I have been experiencing this week. When I first get into the building housing  the hallowed Faculty Hall,  I have to go up up a floor, and the only elevator

For the thin man

in the building is so narrow I cannot drive my wheelchair into it. Meanwhile this lift has no sensor, so the door will try to slam shut after a few seconds even if a person or object is in the way unless one keeps the `open-door' button inside the elevator pressed to keep the door open -  altogether a treat for a person trying to do this alone from a wheelchair.So I have to then get out of my wheelchair, and ask  some passer-by to help pull up the seat so the chair can be `folded' and then wheel in the now thinner chair, after I have quickly hobbled in, and located myself suitably so that I can keep the open-door button pressed while the `volunteered passer-by' wheels the chair and squeezes herself into the unused corner of the elevator.  Anyway the point is that I need to inconvenience myself and a passer-by, more than somewhat, to get in or out of this elevator.

And there are several parallel sessions going on in different halls in different buildings, at least one of which is not on the ground floor, and is in a building without elevators!

And lunch is on the terrace of the building housing the math dept. This building has an elevator which can be accessed from the parking lot - but requires you to climb a steep gradient and press the elevator button just when you have barely reached the top of the incline:

The elevator is barely deep enough and the doors can close only after I have moved in so far that the foot-pedals are hitting against the inside wall. Similarly, when you come back down, you have the stimulating thrill of backing out of the elevator onto a ramp going downhill on a steep incline. In the `up-direction' this elevator does take one all the way to the terrace on the roof, but here too, you have to negotiate a couple of ramps with really steep gradients:

There are such gradients inside the building too, on the second/third floors,

where the slope is so great as to always cause my wheelchair to veer to one side.

There is no end to my list of woes. My friend did manage to get a temporary ramp installed for me to get on the dais to lecture, but the gradient was again too much and led to my chair veering to one side.
If you want to use the toilet, there are further hurdles to be negotiated:

Up, up and away
When I was coming down from the elevator after the last talk of the conference, and was being assisted through my usual routine by a former student, she said feelingly: `Don't come here for any future conferences you might be invited to'! She had spent enough time with me to exactly read my thoughts!

I hope my friends will not mind my saying so, but such institutions should set positive, rather than negative examples of how to make themselves accessible for a PwD to function independently, unescorted, and with dignity. I am sorry guys, but after this experience, even though I know several people have worked hard at the last minute to smoothen things for me, I have promised myself that I will never again submit myself to the lack of appreciation in IISc of the need for universal design. I will come when people who want me to come have made efforts to spread the understanding that people with disabilities should be provided with a barrier-free environment where they can function independently, without the need of a constant attendant, and in short, be able to lead a life in dignity and contritibute their mite to society.

I hope my friends will take these diatribes the way they are meant: by making such displeasure public, I believe I have contributed to improving the state of accessibility in such places as the IIT's at Madras and Bombay, the ISI's at Kolkata and New Delhi, and the University of Hyderabad. I am happy to report that ISI Bangalore, which always has a special place in my heart, has demonstrated its sensitivity by independently rendering itself almost entirely accessible. And I hope such taunts and jibes may help in finally getting the sacred Indian temples for science (like  TIFR and IISc) to start thinking inclusively.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Democracy for whom?

I had written a recent post (see in this blog) but the enclosed email doing the rounds in my `PwD' circles says this much more emphatically:





_Election Commission of India_

   Nirvachan Sadan,
   Ashoka Road, New Delhi-110001




 No citizen of this country can be denied the right to vote.

Yet, even as Delhi hails an impressive voter turn- out and calls it a
‘historic’ poll, the truth is that wheel chair users or visually
impaired voters were effectively sought to be disenfranchised in this
election. This is not only a matter of deep shame but a complete
violation of Supreme Court orders.

Just a day before Delhi went to polls we marked the _International
Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3rd 2013_. This was an
occasion to renew our commitments to full inclusion and access, yet
one day later India and Delhi violated this very promise.

We would like to remind the nation and the Election Commission of
India that Delhi has 80,000 disabled voters. Yet, there was no
information in print, television or radio on facilities for visually
impaired voters or wheel chair users. Moreover, the website of
Election Commission of India remains inaccessible to visually impaired
persons. Do the voting rights of Indian citizens depend on their
different abilities – whether mobility or sight?

Given below are a few examples of what has clearly been a widespread
violation of the rights of differently abled voters across Delhi:

·      West Rajouri Garden Polling booth number 138 had no
ramps for wheelchairs and no braille stickers Dr. Anita Ghai, who uses
a wheel chair could not reach the booth, but because she stood there
protesting, she was lifted by the NDTV team as well as authorities and
taken to the booth. The desire and determination was simply to vote,
because to _not_ vote would go against her democratic and feminist

·      Mr. Virender Kalra, a bank manager and a resident of
Subhash Nagar, found there was no ramp for his wheelchair, so he got
two persons to lift him and take him inside the polling booth.

·      Polling booths number 11, 12,13, 14 in Rajokri had no
ramps and braille stickers.

·      Polling booth 13 in Rajokri had 7 stairs, again with no

·      Abha Khetrapal  , a wheelchair user   could not cast
her vote.

·      Shivani Gupta (Booth no. 23 in 45 Mehrauli) could not
cast her vote. She described her experience -  ‘Yesterday I went to
cast my vote for the Delhi assembly elections. This was the third time
I had gone to cast my vote, but in terms of accessibility nothing had
improved in so many years except there was a ramp. Having a ramp alone
is not a solution to enable persons using wheelchairs to vote. I
wasn’t able to cast my vote in spite of this ramp for the reasons
described below. 1) The route to reach the ramp was inaccessible. It
was a long uneven route difficult to negotiate for a wheelchair user.
2) The entry gate to the school had only the wicket gate open with a
baton in the bottom at the height of 8 cm restricting wheelchair
access. 3) The security did not have the key to be able to open the
main gate. 4)  The voting room entrance doors had wooden poles to
divide the way to enter and exit the room. This division made the
clear space to enter or exit the room very narrow for a wheelchair
user to pass

·      Neeru Gautam, tried to cast her vote by taking her power
chair all the way to the polling station in Block 26 Community Centre.
She realised there was no ramp to enter and the entrance to the room
was also blocked by a wooden pole which had been placed in the middle
of the passage to segregate the incoming and leaving voters. She asked
the election staff to come out and help her cast her vote. But despite
repeated pleas, no one came forward. Then one person offered to lift
her physically, which she refused as she felt it was humiliating and
undignified, and came back without casting her vote.

For a person using a wheel chair, being physically lifted in this
manner is deeply humiliating. And yet, many disabled voters, like Mr.
Kalra and Dr. Anita Ghai, subjected themselves to this humiliation, as
a determined act of citizenship, to make their voice count in our
democracy. Others, similarly placed, did not or could not.

In the case of Dr. Anita Ghai, there was proof of this violation,
merely because an NDTV camera crew, which had gone to cover a
celebrity voting, coincidentally happened to be present at the time
that she was trying to cast her vote, and so Dr. Anita Ghai was
allowed, albeit in a humiliating manner, to exercise her franchise. In
other instances, there is oftentimes no ‘proof’ that is demanded
by the system, before it accepts or corrects its failures.

We must worry that if this is the situation in the nation’s capital,
how grave the situation will be elsewhere, across the country, in
smaller towns and cities and in rural areas.

The Election Commission is duty bound to ensure that each and every
citizen can cast his or her vote. They ought to have implemented full
access to differently abled citizens to polling booths and publicized

We demand:

§  The Election Commission of India and the Chief Electoral
Officer, Delhi issue an immediate written and public apology to all
differently abled voters who were unable to cast their vote in the
Delhi election due to lack of facilities enabling them to do so.

§  The Election Commission of India to issue orders, and give
written assurances that all facilities for the visually impaired and
wheel chair bound citizens shall be provided in future elections
across India. Further, that such facilities shall be duly publicized
through the print and electronic media.

Anita Ghai