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.


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  2. It's true in most of the public places in India. I don't think making them disabled friendly is even remotely thought about while designing. Forget about making them disabled friendly, some of them are not even user friendly. It's a typical Indian trait in all aspects of life.