Friday, 25 January 2013

Space: economy versus consideration

There was this comment on one of the posts in my blog:

I am invited to speak at conferences fairly often and only three of them have had a lift or a ramp to the stage where I am expected to speak -- and the problem of there being no aisle through tables or chairs to get to the front is almost always a problem too.

As I have complained incessantly about the need for ramps where they do not exist, let me devote this post to basicallly make a (possibly overly optimistic) plea to restauranteurs and organisers of various functions to leave a clear three feet (four would be better!) between tables/groups of chairs so people on wheelchairs will have the necessary room to navigate without having to disturb people. (I'll put in a couple of photographs one of these days to illustrate what I am griping about!) This is typically the case when what is on offer is a buffet, and a person like me has only one choice if there is not enough room to navigate from my table to where the food is laid out: and that is to request somebody at my table to (a) go scout the offerings and report to me on what is available, and (b) then go and bring me as much of what they think I may like to eat of my preferred dishes! Wouldn't it be far more considerate/egalitarian  to allow me to do what everyone else is doing: viz., go to the food on offer, decide what I want to eat, and serve myself as much as I'd want to eat of anything?

The same is true at receptions of weddings or family reunions organised in hotels. Given the choice, I would like to move around talking to people I haven't met in a while - just like everybody else - instead of being forced to sit in one place and speak only to those people who specifically come to me to talk to me.

When you come right down to it, it is only economics - in the sense of what it costs the organiser - which decides on whether or not the ambiance would be considerate to the likes of me.

These same considerations apply to the size of elevators, doors. and dimensions of various things. The writing on the wall is clear: more people need to be made aware of the meaning of, and the crying need for espousing, the principles of Universal Design which basically say let your design/arrangement not prevent anybody from doing what everyone else is able to do!

Friday, 18 January 2013

My comfort zones

After my slightly negative post of last week, I thought I should write something positive. One thing which aided me no small amount in this search for positivity was the week-end I spent with my old college friend at a place called Timbaktu (about a third of the way along the highway from Bangalore to Hyderabad). He spends such time as he is in India in this truly idyllic place - the closest thing to a Walden in today's world. There is electricity only for very limited periods of the day, no telecom coverage, so no cell phones or internet! Scary or heavenly, depending on your view-point.

I have had occasion in the past to write about this blind friend Venky, who, not very surprisingly, has an amazing sensitivity to the possible problems `different' people may face. He has built this simple house which has a verandah running all around it, with just two little rooms, a bathroom, and a miniscule kitchen (which my wheelchair cannot enter, on which score I should pick a bone with him!) The first sight of this house is so heart-warming  that I had to click a photograph of it on my inept little phone.  I reproduce that photograph here to show you why the mere sight of it drove me to tears. The big ramp in front was almost like a giant `welcome' mat laid out especially for me!


Having started on the theme of places having been rendered accessible to the likes of me, let me continue by showing how wonderfully accessible my institute has been transformed by our wonderful administrators. I shall put in a bunch of photographs which are listed more or less in the order in which I encounter each of these places almost every day, along with a small attendant explanation/narration.

To start with, my own apartment complex is not very friendly to my wheelchair; for instance, the lift is too small; the only way I can get in is to remove the foot-pedals. In fact, even my own apartment is not particularly accessible now. (I can't even enter my bedroom on a wheelchair!) So I leave my wheelchair in my institute.

But once I get to the institute and hobble my way from the car to my office, I have my wheel-chair to carry me around. To start with, I can get into the lift, and in fact, three more people can get in by my side too!

And my next potentially problematic venture is having to go across the road to the institute canteen for lunch. When construction on this building which houses my office (on the second floor) began, I noticed the few steps that had to be climbed before getting to the elevator. At that time, I used to walk fine but knew I had MS. So partly out of self-preservation and partly on general principles, I used the fact that I was on the `building works committee' and insisted that the only elevator in the institute should be accessible via a ramp; and so the few feet that had already been built were demolished and the necessary ramp incorporated.


So when I get down from the elevator, I have this nice ramp to go down. The path between the library building and the admin building used to be one of those artsy affairs with alternate strips of concrete and grass. and there were two gazebos on either side which provided pleasant venues for formal scientific discussions among small groups. When I saw the first of these, with the inevitable steps, I went and screamed `bloody murder' to my director, and he promised to at least make the second of the gazebos accessible. And sure enough, the second gazebo is accessible now and the path from the library to the admin. building is painlessly smooth to drive my wheelchair on now.



But by far the piece de resistance along these lines involves the entrances to the admin building as well as to the auditorium in the institute, which had both initially had two or three steps from the road level to the floor level inside the buildings. I am indebted to my friend Simon, a physicist in my institute, for this innovative and aesthetically pleasing alternative to a separate ugly ramp on the side of the steps:

Rather than making this post unduly long, let me just conclude with a few more photographs on how the guest house and canteen were turned accessible (`I might need to visit a distinguished visitor - provided (s)he has been given a room on the ground floor of this elevator-less guest house - to discuss math, have some beer, whatever!'):

It is because I do not see why other people with disabilities cannot also be as fortunate as I, to be able to work without difficulty and in dignity, that I began this campaign of writing on such issues! But my institute still `owes me' a few things:

(a) at least one wheel-chair accessible toilet in the campus - preferably quite a few on the ground floor of the guest house as well as the hostel!
(b) an elevator to access the higher floors of the guest house as well as the hostel;
(c) a lift to be able to get up to the director's room and to the Chandrasekhar Hall; and
(d) some ramp or lift to enable me to get on to the `stage' in our Ramanujan auditorium!

You can be sure I'll keep harping on this and not allow them any peace till I have finally succeeded in having helped create a completely accessible institution.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

On the Priorities of Different People

I had not originally wanted to `wash this dirty linen' in public. My only excuse for having changed my mind is that I have got into a `habit' of posting stuff on my blog on saturday mornings – initially only alternate ones, and almost weekly of late – and I have been preoccupied recently with other math-related work, and only have this somewhat half-baked piece available on hand. It has to do with `my column in ToI' being `taken away' from me after more than a year. I realise it is a free country and people can and should make their own decisions. But the reasons for their doing so continues to baffle and irritate me.

The beginning of the end came when the editor whom I had been in contact with all along wrote a few months ago saying he was finding it increasingly difficult to veto the prevalent desire among his senior editors to drop my column for various reasons - from the effect of the fluctuating dollar-rupee equation on the rising cost of newsprint, to my excessive use of `I' in my pieces,.... As an exercise, I compiled a list of (at least two) headlines announcing the news items that their editorial board had decided to carry, instead, on the Trends Page, where my column used to appear in happier days, on each day of one week in mid-September:

20: (i) US woman breastfeeds dog to feel motherly
(ii) Sleeping posture holds clue to your personality?
19: (i) Mom sells breast milk online, docs ring alarm bells
(ii) Dolphins can stay alert for 15 days
18: (i) Crazy about making money? Go for a jog to blunt the urge
(ii) Skipping breakfast leads to junk food craving
17: (i) Attractive people have desirable traits, ...
(ii) Every hour of TV you watch shortens your life by 22 minutes
16: (i) Boss smiling at you is bad news
(ii) It's official: vegetarians outlive the meat-eaters
15: (i) Spray `love hormone' to beat alcohol addiction
(ii) Coffee can slash cancer risk (together each pair takes more space than my column used to.)

I asked my editor if this was really what his Board
considered more vital or absorbing matters than those discussed in my column.

Judging from the several months' silence that has been the answer to my mail to him, I gather they are!

People I meet on the streets ask me why they do not see my column anymore; and I tell them the newspaper has stopped carrying it for their own reasons – and feel slightly embarrassed in so accepting defeat! In future, now, I can tell them to read the gory details of this transition on my blog.

What I would be very pleased by and part of the reason for my writing this piece is if somebody reading this would weigh in with somebody of some editorial clout to come forward and say `here, come publish your stuff in my newspaper/magazine'.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The bard knew what he was talking about

Two mondays ago was supposed to be the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In this context, a resolution was unanimously approved this week by the the U.N. General Assembly which calls for member nations to embrace those with developmental disorders as full members of the community. Under the resolution, the U.N. is encouraging countries to enhance access to support services, offer educational as well as life and social skills opportunities and take steps to promote awareness. The action also urges member nations to collect statistical and research data to allow for a greater understanding of individuals with disabilities within their borders.

But we in India seem to be a breed apart. This monday's newspapers
carried the revealing story of Rajiv Ranjan, an eminently capable coordinator of the Disability Law Unit at Vidya Sagar, not being allowed to open a bank account for the reason that he has cerebral palsy, and his speech is slightly affected. Almost every day's paper has more portrayals of our countrymen's mind-boggling insensitivity. For instance, while all of India is clamouring for courts to move fast  and take action on rapists, today's paper carries a story of a mentally challenged woman being raped by a member of our CRPF (reserve police?)

All this brings to mind the immortal lines of the supreme bard:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not