Sunday, 21 December 2014

When will this trauma cease?

This is an open letter to the Director General of Civil Aviation as well as to the airport staff of Jet Airways and other private airlines. Can you please evolve a formula whereby I do not have to re-live the same trauma almost every time I fly. Unfortunately, that is the only way I can travel - not being able to get into trains or buses because of the ubiquitous steps that refuse entry to my wheelchair.

I must have taken more than a hundred flights with my wheelchair. The problem, you see, is that I use a battery-operated power-driven wheelchair. The DGCA as well as Jet Airways both make statements on their home pages of how people who need to use their own wheelchairs may do so provided they do not have spillable batteries. I have gone thrugh the same routine ad nauseum with our airlines, explaining that my wheelchair operates on a dry lithium battery, and that in fact, we always remove the key of the battery as well as the joy stick that operates the wheelchair before checking in my wheelchair, and that we have flown innumerable number of flights in this fashion, and yet, we often come up against these same oddball objections: (a) I am sorry but you must disconnect/open the battery; or (b) you need to pay so much money since your check-in baggage (including the wheelchair) exceeds the permissible weight - in spite of the home pages of both DGCA and Jet Airways clearly stating that people with mobility problems may have their wheelchairs carried by the free of charge! More than once, after we think everything has been satisfactorily explained, somebody had stopped us and insisted on my wife accompanying them to the wheelchair to `help disconnect the battery', and she did not get back before the airline staff started asking me to go ahead to the craft, as it is getting late, and that `she will join you' later. Given the efficiency they display with the handling of the wheelchair, I do not want to give them the chance to whisk me away, leaving my wife behind!

At the last leg of my flight, for the second ever time in my flying memory, we were permitted to collect the wheelchair from the hold of the craft, right on the tarmac, and use that to go to the arrival lounge. Also, on another flight I had to take this time, I saw, to my horror, the wheelchair come rattling down the luggage belt and crash into the bottom. It is not surprising that my wheelchair is not functional  now and has gone to the factory to get fixed up so I can drive it again. The machine just stopped working due to some loose connections caused by the airlines staff disconnecting all the connections between the battery and the motor, joy-stick controls, etc.

Is it too much to hope for, to ask to be issued a certificate by the DGCA or the airline concerned, stating that transporting my wheelchair is not a hazard, and that random yanking out of wires leads to great inconvenience and difficulties, as well as unnecessary anxiety - and most importantly, one which cannot be ignored by the airport security saying `their information/directive' demands that the wheelchair be subjected to theiir manhandling. Surely, it is not acceptable that I have to spend a few thousand rupees every time I get back home to get my friendly mechanic try and undo the damage suffered by the wheelchair.  

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Stamp of the bully

One sure sign of the bully is that he grabs the lion's share of what's on offer, and expects the `lesser members' of his fold to lump it and live with it; e.g.

  • a staggering majority of the world's wealth/resources is in the hands of a ridiculously small minority;
  • a majority of a state's budgetary allocation for its transport facilities is spent on taking more and more space for making more and more, wier and wider, roads, with the prime beneficiaries being drivers of private automobiles;
  • the larger cities, like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru usurp the right to consume unreasonably and disproportionately large percentages of power/water and such essential commodities today, leaving essentially nothing for the rest of their state (Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, in the cases at hand);
  • at a national level, decisions are made at capitals on matters affecting all citizens of the country, by having meetings of `stakeholders' who are invariably limited to one recurring cast of characters living in the capital, thereby making a mockery of the democratic process.

I am particularly distressed by one manifestation of the last example above. Readers of this blog do not need to be reminded about the history of the passage of the contentious RPD Bill of 2014. In the initial weeks of this year, some so-called `leading representatives' of the disability movement in the country, mostly from Delhi, in an unholy nexus with the `netas' of a floundering Congress party, tried to hastily push through this RPD Bill. It was a feather in the cap of the bullied poor relatives from outside the capital, that they perceived and highlighted the numerous flaws in this wannabe-bill, and got parliament to send this to a Standing Committee, so that it could currently be kept in cold storage till it could be reviewed properly after the new government had been voted in. Barely a month ago, opinions were sought from the public regarding the merits/de-merits of this Bill. Several people sent in well-documented and argued petitions to the SJ&E Ministry. After this farce of a democratic exercise, we read a recent gleeful boast in Facebook by one of the proponents of this Bill (from long before the time of the aborted attempt early in the year) that the Parliamentary Standing Committee will be holding its meetings to discuss the RPD Bill was set to meet on Dec. 2nd, and hopes to have the new law in place by January 2015! This farce of a democratic process needs to be exposed for its Delhi-centric and nationally unrepresentative way of passing ridiculously framed laws.

One would think that if a law was once attempted, in vain, to be pushed through, and if it came up for review, the people consulted would include some of the people who pointed out the shortcomings of the earlier failed version, and an attempt made to see
  • what the reasons were for its not having been passed earlier; and
  • what remedial measures have been adopted in the new draft to address the flaws perceived earlier.


When will we stop going back to the same bullies again and again, ad nauseum?

Civilisation?

Is there any room for these barbarities the civilised country where:

  • people zoom through an intersection even when the signal is red?
  • people park their cars and motorcycles on pavements, blithely impervious to the inconvenience this causes by blocking the only possibly safe space for people to walk, disabled people to use their wheelchairs, blind people trying to navigate a safe distance from the ubiquitous automobiles?
  • or even worse, when the roads are full of cars stalled in a traffic jam, motorcycles start zooming on the pavements - assuming pavements exist and are even, with cutaways to easily get on to and off from the pavement?
  • it is not feasible to keep tactile tiles on pavements, since miscreants remove such tiles and take them away for god knows what use their perverted minds wish to put them to?
  • groups of disability activists have to periodically make access audits prior to making fervent pleas to  all and sundry to refrain from such inconsiderate practices that are constantly infringing on and depriving them of their rights to lead their lives independently, and with dignity?

  • people of all ages periodically throw plastic bags on the road after their contents have been used/consumed?
  • men unzip their flies and `let fly' in random public places?
  • close to half the population do not have access to toilets at home, and defecate out in the open - often on the banks of water bodies (even the supposedly sacred Ganges, Brahmaputra and Cauvery are not exempt from such pollution)? and people of `high castes' insist on doing so and forcing people of `low castes' to scrape this s..t off the ground and carry basket loads of such `night-soil', as it is euphemistically called, to dump it god knows where?
  • Whenever there are blocks in the sewage system, people of the same Dalit classes are `employed' to get into the sewers without any protection of any sort to unclog the mess,; not  week goes by without your reading in the papers that two or three such `cleaners' lost their lives due to having inhaled noxious fumes when they went down into the drains, AND that this inhuman practice of people diving into the s..t had been declared illegal some n years ago.

Yet, all these unholy practices continue unabated in my land with its fabled culture of several millennia! If this is civilisation, please give me the era of the caveman!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

A quiz for town-planners

Would you rather live in Kochi or Delhi? Cambridge or Birmingham? Los Angeles or Boston? Tokyo or Kyoto?

What is the common feature of each of the `winning cities' to the last question?

If land is constantly acquired for broadening roads for `easier commutes' for cars, what do you do when the whole nation has only roads and no more land?

If the only way to get from anywhere to anywhere (even just crossing the street like the proverbial chicken) is to get into a car and drive some three or four kilometres, what do you do when Mother Earth has been sucked dry of all her oil reserves by the increasing need of the SUVs and motor cars?

Have you seen the movie Mad Max?

How does a mother take her children to play in a green when all the green has become tar or concrete?

If the worship of wide roads even leads to motor cycles using the pavements (should they exist), where does one walk, or use a wheelchair, if one cannot do without such aids?

(This post is a response to the following depressing news of an endeavour begun by the same city corporation which has been periodically giving us tidbits in the newspapers about `reclaiming our open spaces' and `introduction of jogging and cycling tracks'.)

Saturday, 1 November 2014

A WDD with a difference

World Disabulity Day is apparently `observed' on December 3rd every year. This `observation' can be done in one of at least two ways:

(i) you could reserve one particular date on the calendar on which date, every year, you announce to the world that `some of your best friends are freaks' and on which date you will tell the whole world that everybody must be kind to freaks and strive to fill the world with `freak lovers'; or

(ii) you could tell yourself (and the world) that it is idotic to define some specific way somebody is different as `freakishness', realise that everybody is a `freak' in some way, and that the intelligent way to make the world a better place to live in is to revel in the existence of differences between us, and to strive for the ideal of `universal design' whose inclusive nature made no concessions for a design which singles out certain `freaks' for not being able to use that which has been designed in an inconsiderate and unthinking manner. (For instance, having a restaurant which can only be reached by climbing a flight of `only three' steps from road-level is a perfact instance of exclusive design which disallows clients who need to use a wheelchair.)

And there was this e-discussion between some people in my group (calling itself the DRA - short for Disability Rights Alliance) on how to utilise the forthcoming `World Disability Day' to clarify the distinction between the two perceptions/attitudes in (i) and (ii) above, when the following brilliant suggesstion came up: `gherao vehicles parked in such a way as to render pavements inaccessible'. (The freaky non-Indian reader of this piece should seek a `normal' Indian's aid in understanding what `gherao' means.)

(Thanks are due to my former student Madhushree for capturing the essence of my glee at the prospect in this cartoon she whipped up in a couple of days.)

This suggestion was just after my heart. Fortunately, enough members of DRA were happy with the idea of doing `something' about accessible pavements. In addition to several wheelchairs parked - preferably with occupants - encircling a motorcycle  or car parked across a pavement, I have fond hopes of executing one of my pet dreams (born in a freaky disabled mathemtician's mind, naturally) of parking my wheelchair right in the way of people trying to access a flight of steps - leading to a store or the ATM of some bank or any commercial place, with a `simple mathematical problem' (which would be totally incomprehensible to one without some mathematical training, but would be as simple for me as climbing those three steps would be for them) which people would have to solve before I would move my wheelchair out of their way, and pointing out that freaks ill-equipped to solve the problem unfortunately had no place in my world.

I await December 3rd with ghoulish desire - to see people's reaction to this world with roles reversed.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

This is what my people say

 I have been blessed with having been accepted as a member of a loosely knit group of individuals who call themselves the Disability Rights Alliance which contains quite an erudite and right-thinking group of people - from legally trained minds to people with decades of experience of work in `the sector', and here is what one of them had to say about this contentious RPWD Bill of 2014:

   A reading of the Bill reveals that there is a complete lack of
   understanding of the approach of the UNCRPD on the part of the drafters.
   From abridged definitions (which are extremely crucial and clear under the
   convention), to plain callousness in the arbitrary and unresearched 'list'
   of disabilities, the RPWD Bill fails utterly in its lofty self stated
   objective to implement the UNCRPD. Some of the most crucial provisions of
   the UNCRPD which were celebrated in the disability movement – the adoption of the social model of definition of disability in Article 1, the concept
   of reasonable accommodation under Article 2, the right to full legal
   capacity under Article 12, the right to independent living under Article
   19, the right to accessibility under Article 9, respect for home and the
   family under Article 23, the right to inclusive education under Article 24,
   and the right to participation in political and public life, have all been
   either diluted or outright ignored by the drafting committee of this Bill.

And what I liked best about her summary of our various discussions on the topic was her

CONCLUSION

*IF* India's ratification of the CRPD was of informed consent (and with
'sound mind' by current law!),
*if* the RPWD Bill is to comply with the CRPD,
*if* historical injustice is to be ended with an emancipatory, equalising
legislation that aggressively promotes participation of disabled citizens
in realising their potential,

and *if* public's feedback is genuinely being sought in this and other
legislative and policy matters;

it cannot be this murky token excuse of public participation.
A section of the disability sector's legal members are of the opinion that
the preponderence of changes that are required to be made to the existing
draft (refer attached annexure) would be better served by a fresh law
instead of a much patched draft.

If so to avoid the current dismal state of affairs, needless delay and
waste of public's time and money clear, fair and transparent guidelines are
a must, and since currently lacking, are the need of the hour.

The DRA seeks a cross-sectoral representation of 4 DRA member
representatives to meet with the Standing Committee to enable India with
the disability law she so desperately needs.



What I really like about this is that it says, in a much more poitically acceptble way, the exact same thing I said in a possibly much more crude and abrasive fashion in my last post. Bottom line: FLUSH THIS BILL DOWN WITH THE WASTE-MATTER AND MAKE A FRESH START TOWARDS A UNCRPD-COMPATIBLE DRAFT OF ONE.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Old wine in new bottles - or the monster rears its head again

In this past December/January, an attempt was made to pass a Bill euphemistically called `Rights of People with Disabilities Bill 2014' when it was discovered just in time by many people that this was a more a Bill of denial of such rights, and a hue and cry was made with the result that this `Bill' was sent to a Standing Committee. The primary objection to the Bill was that it kept violating the tenets of the UNCRPD that India became signatory to more than seven years ago. (As for what I mean by these violations, please see a  past post in this blog where I go berserk on this theme.) One had hoped that this Standing Committee would try to supervise the drafting of  a completely new Bill that was much more in tune with the general principles of the UNCRPD.

But now, the Parliament has issued a Press Communique dated Sept. 26th, announcing that this Standing Committee is inviting suggestions on the Bill from the public within 15 days of the announcement of the Communique. They kindly give you a link to where one may find this Bill; and what does one find there, but exactly the repugnant Bill that there was such a hullaballoo over in January/February.

Why can't the committee appoint a subcommittee of appropriately qualified and knowledgeable people to draft a new Bill which does not contravene the UNCRPD every few lines? While the latter has a completely unambiguous and humane definition of `Persons with disabilties', the RPD Bill 2014, on the other, very sagaciously identifies exactly 19 forms of disability - how 19? why 19? why this 19? - and thereby sets the cat among the pigeons pitting the several million PWD in India against one another as to who may be recognised as a PWD and hence entitled to how much of the entitlements kindly rationed out to them. And the manner of assigning percentages of posts that would be reserved for various kinds of PWD can only be understood by an Indian bureaucrat familiar with our legalese. This manner of `divide and conquer' has not been as effectively used since the days of colonisation of the `primitive' peoples by the `civilised' colonisers. 

It almost appears that what is expected is a `point-by-point' rebuttal, with numbers of relevant clauses cited, of the existing draft. As one of my friends said some eight months ago, in colourful Tamil, this Bill is `such a hopelessly torn rag full of holes, that it makes no sense trying to darn it in a few places to try and present something halfway decent'. 

This draft is, quite simply, hopelessly flawed, and one must start from scratch on a fresh sheet of paper, starting from the UNCRPD, and making India-specific amendments only where absolutely necessary.  AND this exercise of drafting must be taken from disability activists representing different kinds of disability and different parts of India (rather than the same old people in New Delhi whom our media has almost equated with the public face of PWDs in India).

Let us PLEASE take a fresh look at this vitally important matter. We have been given a second lease of life to set things in order. Let us not waste this reprieve by making a mess of it again.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Physician, heal thyself!

Haven’t you always wondered at the inordinately high level you have to climb on to before you can have an x-ray or a scan? Is there a secret golden rule followed by hospitals which demand that a patient who is aged, or who has some locomotor problems, must suffer that much more before the cause of their ailment can be assessed?
An attempt was recently made by some friends of mine, to conduct a survey of accessibility features in various hospitals, by requesting them to answer a questionnaire that had been prepared. The results were neither reassuring nor surprising:
  • 98 hospitals were approached for this purpose.
  • 64 of them agreed to answer the questionnaire, and although some responses seemed to be at some variance from what the volunteers taking the questionnaires saw, they had to take the questionnaires with the answers provided - without asking questions.
  • 34 hospitals refused to answer the questionnaire as they did not have the provisions asked about in the questionnaire. But the surveyors have no proof of this! Some of these 34 hospitals could well have some of these accessibility features.
  • Of the 64 that did respond to the questionnaire, there were three groups, each of more or less the same size, which could be described as being rather inaccessible, moderately accessible, and quite accessible.
This is just the sort of issue that Dr. Satendra Singh, another disability activist friend of mine, excels at bringing to the attention of courts or other appropriate powers that be, and forcing them to do something about it. 

How about it, Satendra?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

To tip or not to tip

This is not just a rhetorical question; it is a decision I writhe over making every time I have to use a plane. (Sorry for reverting to one of my pet topics.) You see, I use a (dry) battery operated wheelchair. But whenever I fly, I have to check in my own wheelchair, answer numerous questions regarding the possible danger to the aircraft in carrying my wheelchair, and then transfer to one of the wheelchairs used by the airline to transport people with locomotor disabilities.

The Director General of Civil Aviation had uploaded a draft Civil Aviation Requirements http://dgca.nic.in/misc/draft%20cars/D3M-M1_Draft_July2013_.pdf, according to (section 4.1.8 of) which, passengers who prefer to use their own wheelchair shall be permitted to use it provided the wheelchair conforms to identified guidelines, and the wheelchair returned to enable transfer of the passenger from the seat directly into his/her own wheelchair. That would be my idea of Nirvana - to be able to breeze through the airport independently without needing some poor guy to push me. (And, it would be much nicer to have admiring glances at my wheelchair zipping along, as against barely concealed looks of pity at my state!)

As it is, I have to check in my wheelchair at the time of checking in (after having removed the delicate joystick from it and stowed in a suitcase (deliberately chosen, only for this purpose, to be larger than would have otherwise been needed), and then transferring into one of the wheelchairs povided by the airline. And when I get to the destination, the checked-in wheelchair is brought to the conveyor belt where the bags come. After fixing some temporary dislocation the wheelchair invariably suffers while in transit, we then fix the joy-stick to the wheelchair, and get on our way.

But the point of the story is not my wheelchair, but the attendant provided by the airline to push the wheelchair provided by them. Invariably the question arises as to whether to tip the attendant, and if so, how much. On the one hand, one feels sorry for the poor chap needing to push me long distances, up and down slopes (in reverse in the latter case), ... On the other hand, it is their job, and not everybody can casually spend up to almost three hundred rupees just on tips for each flight (counting tips at both ends). My daughter says I should not tip them, as they tend to then demand such a tip, and treat passengers in a manner consistent with the tip they are likely to receive from the `fare'. I have many times, found the attendant not willing to take a tip in front of superior officers of their airline.

Of late, I have been flying the airline Indigo whenever possible, because they have ramps rather than steps so that I can be pushed all the way into the craft. The icing on the cake at my latest flight in Indigo was the response of the attendant, when offered a tip, after having taken us all the way to the pick-up point, and loaded our suitcase and my wheelchair into the van waiting for us: `No sir, this is free service from Indigo'!

It will help in the process of deciding whether or not to tip if passengers were told at check-in , that in keeping with airline policy (if that is indeed the case) , they should not tip the attendant.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Fingers Crossed

There was an event organised yesterday by the Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) of Chennai which I had received a very cordial invitation (from one of the trustees of this CAG) to attend. It was to a lecture titled `Nature Without Borders' and held at Sivagami Pethachi Hall, which is one of the few auditoria in Chennai where I attend plays, as one only has to negotiate some three shallow stairs. Initially mistaking the title for something to do with `Barrier-Free Environments', I told my hostess that I would come with my wheelchair, and she asked me to please do, promising whatever assistance I might need. I later discovered that I had been mistaken in connecting the talk to the kind of barriers I had in mind. Nevertheless, I thought it might not hurt to `make an appearance with my wheelchair', if at least to enlist some possible sympathy/help from people in influential positions. in trying to render some of these places accessible.

One of the first people I met ws a charming lady who had retired from the Madras High Court, and had been a former trustee of CAG. When a couple of guys helped carry my wheelchair in while I hobbled out of it and up the step into the auditorium, the hall was dark as the power had gone and the generator had not yet kicked in, so I sat in my wheelchair in the passage between the door and the nearest seat where this former judge was seated. It did not take much to launch into my gripes about how little it would take to organise a couple of temporary lightweight ramps which could be kept in place when needed, so one could wheel right in without anybody having to help. (See http://differentstrokes-vss.blogspot.in/2013/04/following-robert-bruce-example.html for what I mean by this!) I publicised my other pet peeve about my being unable to go the Museum Theatre, a quaint ambience to stage plays in, that is much favoured by actors - but which also has a surfeit of steps. And she said she had stopped going to the Museum Theatre, wishing to be kind to her knees which were getting no younger. Egged on by the sympathy, I said even the Music Academy, the favoured haunt for Carnatic music concerts, left a lot to be desired. Stung to the quick, she said she would use whatever clout she had there to render it fully accessible.

I also spoke to my hostess who promised to try and do something, and even suggested a few places I might want to write to, in order to increase the probability of my exercises having any effect. All in all, it had been a good end to the last working day of the week!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Smart designers could think universal

I have been managing with an ancient - unsmart - mobile phone for many years now, for two reasons: (i) the ineptness of most sixty plus people with electronic gizmos, and (ii) the conflict between needing two hands to operate a smart phone, on the one hand, and the fact that I am invariably walking with a crutch when the phone rings, on the other! As readers of this  blog might recall, I use a wheelchair when I can, but the lack of universal design in the planning of most public spaces and buildings in India force me to get off my rear and painfully and unsteadily walk with my crutch in super-slow-motion (and this keeps my physiotherapist happy, besides). Just for fun, let me give you an idea of one peculiar set of problems I have to deal with on a daily basis. Here goes: my left hand has little or no feeling, so searching for something in my pocket with the left hand is problematic; I don't know if I have picked out my pen or my phone or if indeed I have picked anything out until I see what is, or is not, in my hand. The natural solution - you would say, as if to an idiot child - is to keep things only in a pocket accessed by the right hand, but I need my right hand for my crutch when I have to walk. And by what's his name's principle, the phone will invariably ring only when I am walking!

And I do need my phone for reasons unfamiliar to most people. I usually get dropped  as close as is possible to wherever I have to get out of the car and walk to wherever I have to go, and when I return to the `pick-up point', I have to call my driver to ask him to come and get me; and this happens three or four times a day. And it is not as if I wouldn't like to have the internet available at my fingertips. But as I said earlier, these `smart'  phones, which everybody tells me I should get, come with two inconvenient features for me: (i) you need two hands to operate them, and (ii) the icons are so small - in order to show the huge number of `smart' options that are available to the user - that something like every fourth key/icon that my nimble fingers hit is a wrong one. (This, by the way, is one reason that even when I use the larger keyboard of a laptop, my efforts are riddled with typos - z's and r's appear where they have no business to!)

This post is an open letter to computer geeks to address my two problems above by coming up with a smart phone which (i) can be operated easily with one hand, and (ii) incorporate a mechanism whereby an icon blows up in size when one's finger is above it (Macs have this facility when the cursor goes over icons in the `dock';) and thereby permit me to sample the `smart' aids that are available to most people other than me. I am sure (ii) above would also help people with low vision. Some universal design please! 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Equals?


Recently, some disability activist friends of mine wanted to register an organisation (a DPO called Equals), and this involved going to the sub-registrar's office in Saidapet, Chennai. I have had to go to this office a couple of times myself in the matter of a mortgage for my flat. Every visit there was a painful experience.  In the first place, it is located on a narrow street with vehicles parked randomly and densely so that it is very difficult even for a `normal person' to go from a car to the office building. And there is the inevitable flight of some number (my memory says about three to five) of steps to be navigated before one can get from the pavement to the interior of the building.

And the inside is a typical Governmnt office, swarming with touts who are waiting to explain the complicated rules and procedures to be followed and to run your errand for a fee in the almost sure event of your not understanding the procedure explained by them. This is all unofficial, of course, and if you take the seemingly easy way out of accepting their offer, what follows is alternate periods of long waits (while he runs up to the office on the second floor to execute the next step of `the procedure') and negotiating with him when he comes and says he needs an extra N rupees in order to give somebody along the chain who HAS to be placated - i.e., have his palm greased - before proceeding to the next step.

But Rajiv (in his wheelchair) and Meenakshi (with her crutches and other assistive devices) are stalwarts in the area of disability activism who are made of sterner stuff. (Otherwise they could not have lasted more than two decades doing this kind of work!) So Rajiv leaves his wheelchair downstairs and crawls on hands and knees up the infinitude of not particularly clean steps to go up the two floors, and Meenakshi must have undergone an equally painful ten minutes each way, to go up and then climb down all the steps. But at the end of the day, `Equals' is up and running, and they are one step ahead in the never-ending struggle to make it possible for PWD to lead a life on par with `normal' people.

This was covered by the newspapers today, and here is a link to one of the newspaper articles which carries a photograph of Rajiv dragging himself down the stairs. And this is 19 years after the PWD Act and seven years since India became a signatory to the UNCRPD. (In case our politicians and law makers do not remember, the acronym stands for `United Nations Convention on the Rights for People with Disabilities'.)

It is a crying shame that every year, the relevant Ministry spends only a ridiculous fraction of the money allotted for various measures, and that too on trivial peripherals without doing anything about addressing the basic problems of accessibility. A recent press release from the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment says:

13th National Meeting of the State Commissioners for Persons with Disabilities to Review Implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. 

The Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Shri Thaawar Chand Gehlot inaugurated the 13th National Meeting of the State Commissioners for Persons with Disabilities to review implementation of PWD Act here today. 

......................................................................

The Minister emphasized on ensuring barrier free access to public places for persons with disabilities in a time bound manner. 

......................................................................

I wonder: is Tamil Nadu, where Meenakshi and Rajiv underwent the tribulations described above, one of the Indian states, to which Shri Gehlot's utterances apply? Just how much longer should this kind of unnecessary hardship be endured by PWD, leave alone the well-meaning advocates of their rights?

Monday, 14 July 2014

Surely you are joking Mr. Director General of Civil Aviation!


I am getting sick of the monotonous regularity with which our airlines continue to discriminate against PWD because they strike the aireline authorirties as being potential security hazards (sic) to other passengers. The latest such manifestation of such insensitivity was when a woman was not allowed to board a flight with her autistic son who was perceived a such a hazard. See http://www.deccanherald.com/content/418968/no-air-travel-mentally-challenged.html for the gory details. Unlike the opinion apparently expressed, according to the above report, by Mr. Javed Abidi - almost universally perceived by the Indian Press and powers-that-be in Delhi as the spokesman of PWDs in India -  I am not at all surprised by this incident. I do not forget what Jeeja Ghosh underwent. And she is far from being a unique victim of such blatant travesty of justice

What makes this latest assault on PWDs doubly horrific is that many of us were involved in a long exercise (with a groupspace called `flight:we-the-pwd...') in how people with disabilities could ensure better experiences when taking domestic flights. And about all I can lay hands on to show for all our effort was this draft of an official document, which, although `dated ../../2013' shows that our civil aviation ministry has shockingly short memory: http://dgca.nic.in/misc/draft%20cars/D3M-M1_Draft_July2013_.pdf . Just when will all these politically correct sounding statements get translated to some sensitivity on the ground - that too, from the National Carrier Air India. I swore some years ago to never fly Air India and their ground staff are vindicating this decision at least once in three months. Do our government officials have no accountability? Can they say sweet nothings which are not reflected in how their departments function? Do they have no pride in their work?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Never-ever-more

What do the following places have in common: J.N. Tata Auditorium (Bangalore), Vigyan Bhawan (Delhi), Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore), Tata Institute of Science (Mumbai), The Museum Theatre (Chennai), Siri Fort Auditorium III (Delhi)? Aside from the fact that they are the places where the Indian Government transacts its more `significant' activities, they vie with one other in being inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. While I have documented/substantiated my claims about all these places (except the last one) in this blog - in the posts titled What got my goat - and made me pick up my pen (March 2012), Nevermore (May 2014), The mother of all institutes (December 2013), and Ingenious Hurdles to Access (December 2011) - this post addresses itself to the last of these buildings.

In the post Nevermore referred to above, I had spoken of how Abha, a wheelchair-bound writer with many accomplishments was called to a premiere of the movie called Accsex that was brilliantly held at an inaccessible venue, and of how we should boycott any event to which we are invited if it is at an inaccessible venue. And, sure enough, it has happened to her again, this time at the Siri Fort Auditorium. No words are needed when you see the photograph below:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10203983299480770&set=pcb.10203983336001683&type=1&theater

When Abha posted on Facebook that this movie was going to be screened for bout a week in late July/early August, I seriously thought of trying to see it when I go to Delhi for a few days in late July. But fter these two miserable experiences, I really need to check with a friend if the venue is really accessible.

India is supposed to be one of the countries with the highest percentage of its population below 25 years of age; but I would hazard a guess that it must be near the top of the table when it comes to the percentage of its elected representatives who are over 60 years of age. You would imagine that these elected representatives would think a little more about how they themselves will negotiate all these stairs-filled halls in twenty years time, when their knees start creaking! Since they don't seem to think of the needs of PWD or feel any compulsion to pay any heed to the fact that India is allegedly a signatory to the UNCRPD, this is the only way we can hope that they will be moved to doing something we may benefit by!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Madly rushing to the only possible conclusion with a short-sighted and one-track mind


Some months ago, I was led to believe that the Corporation of Chennai was being sensible and open-minded to the dream of restoring public spaces to the people and not sacrificing them at the altar of the automobile. I had been to a consultation involving the Commissioner of Chennai Corporation and organisations like the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Chennai City Connect Foundaion (CCCF), where an entire day was spent by some six groups of ten people each, charting out possible streets which could accommodate bicycle lanes, and such notions unimaginable in Indian cities. Even last week, Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect was proudly telling me Chennai was becoming the cynosure of all eyes, with such projects as reclaiming pavements in Besant Nagar, Pantheon Road, etc., and the great plans in store for rendering large parts of Mylapore and T. Nagar `for pedestrians only'!

Imagine my shock when I learnt there was going to be a meeting between Chennai Corporation officials and residents of Mandaiveli to discuss plans for the proposed grade separators in Mandaiveli and three other places, one of which is to be at an intersection used every day by many of my friends on their way to and from work. So I sounded the alarm to our friends that some of us should go to this meeting to put across our point of view. As it turned out, only three of us had planned to meet there, and the omens on the way did not augur well. Firstly, on the way to the hall where this meeting had been announced, we had to pass SIET road, one of the roads where the pavements had allegedly been `reclaimed' and what I saw was this:

Bikes claiming the pavements back!


When we got to the hall, where I had insisted on taking my wheelchair if at least to make a statement, what met me was:

The inevitable step, without even an apology for a ramp


I soldiered on till the step, and `volunteered' a couple of people there to help carry the wheelchair up the inevitable single step. Although I got there only half hour after the stated starting time, it was only after I had commandeered a corner at the front of the hall that the dignitaries trooped in and the show got on the road. The presentation started with a descriptions of the four roads coming into the Mandaiveli intersection under discussion. We were provided with statistics of how many cars went from any one of those roads to any other in a specified interval of time, and how they were planning an overbridge from one of the four roads to another, and how this would make it possible for so many more cars to traverse the intersection in the same interval of time. I kept tying to raise my hand to ask what the statistics for the pedestrians were, and if it was assumed to be obvious that enabling more cars to travel faster was the only way to go forward. But of course, my hand was never acknowledged and one had to wait until a boring littany of numbers regarding the widening of roads had to be gone through, which nobody would have remembered a few minutes later, and the the floor was open for questions only after the presentation was over. Immediately, some gentleman started shooting off his questions before I could hope for a kindly soul to recognise my raised hand. Thereupon, the Mayor of Chennai Corporation came down from the dais and came down to speak to this gent, crossing me on his way, followed by a group of followers, so I had to strain to even see the Mayor's back. The gentleman who had made the presentation was next to me and I pleaded with him to give me a chance to ask a question. After a few minutes, he gave me a cordless mike so I could chirp in when there was a lull in the dialogues the Mayor was being engaged in by several people. When my chance came, I told the Mayor I had been waiting a long time to ask some questions, and he very magnanimously asked me to `pray proceed'. I said that we had only heard about cars, and I wanted to know how people like me or elderly people would get to cross the newly constructed roads whose purpose seemed to be to ensure a constant free flow of traffic; he turned to one of his flunkies and said `there are indications of that in our maps, no?'. The flunky said yes, the mike was taken away from me, and I realised there was litle point in our staying any longer and came out with a sick feeling in my stomach. Sure enough, today's newpapers covered the `event' and said that decisions had been finalised by the Corporation on the grade separators in the four places mentioned earlier.

The short-sightedness mentioned in the title refers to the comment in the presentation that when this overbridge had come up, we would have no problems of traffic congestion for the next twenty years. Would more overbridges come up after twenty years, then?

The one-track mind refers to the thinking that the only way forward is to have more and more cars traveling faster and faster? No one seems to even consider the fact that the number of road traffic accidents per year have been steadily increasing every year at a staggering rate, and with it the number of fatalities, a very high percentage of which consists of elderly pedestrians. This model of `growth' will only result in confining the aged and the people with disabilities to the four walls of their homes.

The only possible conclusion I am talking about is total stagnation - with nobody getting from anywhere to anywhere else - cos we'll soon run out of gasoline to run our cars, and we would have backed ourselves into a corner due to not having improved our public transport.

And here is something else that really gets my goat. I received email about how in order to prevent our motor-cyclists parking their vehicles in the way, the Bombay Metro has started putting up bollards all over the place, thereby enacting a case of throwing out your wheel-chair-users along with the motor-cycles! See this link if you want to get really dejected/furious. And as icing on the cake, here are some (bad) photographs I took of motorcyclists whizzing along on the pavement of Gandhi Mantapam Road:

Where does one walk? 


Fortunately, I will not have to live in this country forty years from now, but heaven help our children!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Please keep my money, Mr. Banker!


I was at a meeting yesterday with some friends from our `Disability Rights Alliance' , the aim of the meeting being to try and draw up a list of some `reasonable, minimal and non-negotiable' requirements to be put up by two of us who will be going to Delhi this week-end to be part of a `consultation with the powers that be' - with our `begging bowl' to say `pretty please, would you be so kind as to satisfy these greedy wants of ours'.

The reader should know the background, where many perfectly intelligent and capable people are being denied, only because they have cerebral palsy or some psycho-social disorder, the right to own and maintain a bank account! Here is my bid to itemise some of these demands. You would think any self-respecting democratically run country - leave alone the largest one in the world - would consider these to be self-evident necessities!

A note on some acronyms used: (i) PWD = person(s) with disability; (ii) P without D = the other kind, for whom the banks seem to work!)

  1. All banks should, when necessary, accept a thumbprint of a person in lieu of a signature. (If this can be done for any one human being (e.g., illiterate, or aged and unable to sign), there can be no justification for not doing this for every person – with or without disability. Any bank that does so should be liable to a fine/penalty, and should recompense the person so discriminated against.
  2. All bank personnel should undergo a course of sensitisation where they learn the do's and don't's of dealing with PWD.
  3. Every bank shall have an accessibility officer to identify potential problems of, maintain statistics regarding, and facilitate communication with and transactions by persons with disabilities.
  4. ATMs should be usable by people with all manners of disability (be it visibility, auditory, speech or locomotor impairments). A third of the branches of each bank in each town should have a drive-in ATM.
  5. In cases where some PWD are constrained to have an account jointly with a guardian, all transactions in that account must be immediately intimated to both account holders.
  6. Appropriate safe-guards must be built into the mechanisms by which guardians are assigned to PWD who may be deemed to need them.
  7. Banks should initiate drives to get PWD among their clientele, maintain statistics of the PWD among their clientele, and disincntives should be in place to discourage banks where the percentage of PWD among all clients varies from the mean beyond statistically acceptable standards.
  8. ATMs should not ask clients for their phone numbers (simply because they may not have one or be deaf!) It should be possible to operate an ATM purely on the basis of the thumb-prints of the user.
  9. Any Bank refusing to let a PWD open an account must be severely and sternly reprimanded by the RBI and appropriate penalty should be levied. The same holds for any bank found using different criteria for the same service to PWD and P without D.
  10. A master circular laying out all these considerations concerning PWD should be distributed and prominently displayed in all Banks.
  11. The absurd practise of people with certain kinds of disability needing to obtain a certificate that `they do not need a guardian' should immediately be done away with. Unlike other citizens of the land, are PWD guilty until proven innocent?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Dear Mr. President, please do not make vacuous statements


Our politicins are masters of giving speeches where they seem to promise all
sorts of good things, when in fact they have carefully chosen their words so
they cannot later be faulted for not having fulfilled their promise.

Our president, in a recent address, mentioned `specially abled' people for
the first time. Great progress, you would think; but sift through his three
sentences with a toothcomb:

The welfare and rehabilitation of specially - abled people is integral to my government's vision of a caring society.

Hold your horses, Pranab-da! I need no rehabilitation from you or anybody. I don't want your caring society's offer to carry me up three steps when you have not had the forethought to instal a ramp when you have steps. I do not need your sympathy and caring; I want to be able to participate in any walk of life that you are able to.

It will take steps to provide dignity of life to them by facilitating their participation in all walks of life. 

Mention ten, or even just three, specific steps your government will take to `provide dignity of life' to me. Will you make it possible for me to get out of my house on my wheelchair, get down from the pavement to the road, and cross the road? Will you make it possible for me to take a bus or train or metro? Will you make it possible for me to exercise my franchise at the next elections? And will I be able to do all these three things by myslf without having to have somebody to help me achieve each of these mind-boggling and death-defying feats?

Steps will be taken to identify their special needs and to provide institutional care to them.

And what is this new terminology `special needs'? You and our prime minister need spectacles to read anything, while I do not need any such aids to read. I need a wheelchair to move around while you are able to walk. Is your need special or is mine special? Maybe one is `more special' than the other? I notice you are planning to have special institutions to dish out the special needs for the specially abled. I just hope these are not the kind of institution where people with certain kinds of special needs are kept tied up in chains and possibly get charred to death when thee is a fire in their `special institution'.

India is supposd to be a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. (Please note the internationally accepted terminology: I am not a disabled person, just a person with disability who is rendered disabled by an unfriendly environment riddled with barriers!) When we became signatories to the UNCRPD, we promised to `take steps' to ensure a barrier-free environment and inclusive society; the only steps I can see are more buildings with steps but no ramps!

So please make measurable promises and live up to them - and do not dish out this vague nonsense which still reeks of the old `charity model of disability' rather than the one that empowers people with disability to lead useful lives in dignity!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

We need your help, Mr. Modi


This is in the manner of an open letter to Mr. Modi who has swept into power with such impressive support that it appears tht he can do anything he wishes. Sir, I hope to convince you of the desirability of implementing many of my fond hopes, which I have been repeatedly presenting to Government officials in the past, with precious little to show for it.

Basically I want persons with disabilities (PWD, henceforth) to be given a chance to contribute what they can to society, with independence and dignity. For example, I can basically go nowhere without a wheelchair, but I have been blessed to work in an institute with a remarkably sensitive administration which has seen the value of rendering itself accessible to my wheelchair, so I can continue to contribute as effectively as I did before having become a victim of multiple sclerosis; my work has been recognised by such national awards as the S.S. Bhatnagar Award for Mathematics, and Fellowship of all three national science academies. I am saying this just to make the point that surely there are many more people like me.

I wish to appeal to you as someone with the economic sense of not confining 5% of our people to their homes just because of their misfortune in being disabled. Please recognise that it is our environment which disables them.  As against the dubious figure (even less than 3%)  given by the latest census exercise of our country, quite a bit more than 5% of our citizens are sure to have some manner of disability. Surely such a large number of people must contain a non-trivial collection of people who can and will contribute significantly to the growth/betterment of our country if they were not constrained by a society riddled with hurdles and barriers to their being able to even get out of their homes. For this to happen, certain steps must be taken:
  1. Buses, trains, metros, planes,..., in short, all forms of public transportation must be modified/re-designed so that a PWD can participate fully in all facets of life, effectively, independently, and be able to lead a fruitful life in dignity just like any other citizen.
  2. All buildings/utilities must be forced to be barrier-free and inclusive for ALL people; this means (i) where there are steps, there should also be ramps whose gradients are not so steep as to be unusable by a person on a wheelchair; (ii) all ramps and steps must be equipped with handrails, preferably on both sides; (iii) there must be elevators in buidings which have more than just the ground floor; (iv) there must be signs in braille; (v) all buses/trains/elevators should have announcements so the visibly impaired know when a certain stop/floor has been reached.
  3. People must be sensitised to observe rules such as stopping at red lights, and being a little more considerate towards PWD in small but important ways, such as: (i) buses should stop only at bus stops, and NOT for only a few seconds some 50 ft. past the bus stop, (ii) rather than rushing to be first and pushing all else out of the way, wait and give priority to the aged, the infirm,  children and PWD.
  4. Please do not give away our country to the automobile user; stop the current tendency to have long stretches of divided highway which are impossible to cross by one on foot or in a wheelchair. Stop our tendency to design cities where growth or improvement is measured only by miles of roads built, with no consideration of the number of fatal accidents. (A majority of the fatalities are pedestrians, largely elderly and infirm - not to mention poor people sleeping on the pavements who are run over by rich people diving their fancy cars in a state of inebriation.)
  5. Finally, please ensure passage in Parliament of a suitably re-drafted version of a `Rights for Persons with Disbilities Bill' that was sent to a Standing Committee after the last Government was stalled in its efforts to hurriedly pass it in February by a Congress Party in its dying days. This `stalling' was a result of many right thinking people who used whatever means were available - including sympathetic support from such people as Arun Jaitley (BJP), Kanimozhi (DMK) and Sitaram Yechury (CPI(M)). Please do not make the mistake made by the UPA of only consulting one or two disability activists in Delhi, who do not necessarily always see things the same way as others in the field (from all over India) do!


Please use the power given to you, with great hopes, by a large number of people, to progress in the direction that would be lauded by arguably the greatest Indian from Gujarat, namely the Mahatma fondly called the Father of the Nation.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

World MS Day

The reason I am putting up this post now is the slight goof in the way my blog now appears, resulting from my clumsy fingers. Let me try to explain away the complicated previous sentence. It turns out that next wednesday is world MS Day, and the the secretary of local (Chennai, India) chapter of the MS Society of India told me that as Accessibility is the theme for the day, and as my institute is one of the most accessible places she has seen, she asked me if we could conduct the festivities at my institute. She told me that the press would be well represented, and I could try to sell the idea to my director as a way to get free publicity for the institute. I told her that he would let us have the do at IMSc without having to be sold the advertisement angle; it is the inclusivity of his thinking that has allowed me to get the institute to systematically make this entire campus accessible to me on my wheelchair. And I was right: as soon as I asked if we could use the premises for the meeting that day, he came out with his stock answer `take it ya'. And Ann (the secretary of MSSI, Chennai) has prepared a programme for the involving short talks by some seven people on different aspects of accessibility, such as rehabilitation, employment, education, transport, sports for the disabled and welfare schemes). And I have been asked to talk about education. The only thing I can talk about is on my attempts to talk to the powers that be at various institutes and universities that I get invited to talk at - all of which has been faithfully chronicled in this blog - and of the spectacular success my efforts have been met with at my own institute (see the post http://differentstrokes-vss.blogspot.in/2013/01/my-comfort-zones.html). And as I was trying to get links to various pieces that are related to this effort of mine, an old post from some two years ago somehow hopped to top of the line; and this mini-post is by way of explaining this strange phenomenon to a possibly puzzled follower of my blog!

Ingenuity revisited


Times of India, September 1, 2012


Some time ago, I had written in this column about a stroke of monstrous ingenuity that I had witnessed in the faculty housing at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai - that of having elevators halt halfway between floors, by which amazing stroke of economy, it was ensured that you have to climb up or down half a flight of stairs if ever you take the elevator - God help you if you are wheelchair-bound. This ingenuity of fundamental research was to return to dog me recently in the distant North-East.

In response to a plea from a University there to come and help with `Curriculum Development of their Mathematics Department', I sent my stock response that owing to my mobility problems, I could come only if:


  1. I would be driven from the nearest airport to the place where I would be accommodated; and
  2. it was ensured that in view of my mobility constraints, the venues of my accommodation as well as of the office where I would need to work were both totally accessible to my wheelchair.

Back came the instant response that all my worries were noted and best efforts were being taken to ensure my comfortable stay. Lured by the prospect of escaping from Chennai in May to the heavenly climes (at least 30 degrees cooler) of the beautiful north-east, with a possible view of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga, I agreed to go.


My hosts had thoughtfully sent a large SUV which would comfort- ably transport my motorised wheelchair (which I had carted through the airports with some amount of difficulty), my wife, our baggage and me - thereby satisfying my first condition. As for the second, I had been warned that I would need to negotiate a couple of steps at the entrance of the guest house, after which, however, I would have no problems. After negotiating the two steps at the entrance, I entered the guest house to renew my acquaintance with the horror of the half-landing elevator.


My room was next door to and on the same floor as the room where our meetings were to be held; while the dining room was one floor higher. My hosts kindly offered us the option of having our food brought to our room. We did avail this option a few times, but as all the others were eating in the dining hall, it seemed only civil to go up for at least a few meals.


At the end of a gruelingly long day of going over syllabi of courses, we were told that the Vice-Chancellor had invited all the external experts with our families to dinner - which we later discovered was to be at floor -3 in a hotel without an elevator, so it was back to our room for dinner. The next night, we were told that dinner would be slightly delayed - to 9 pm - as the VC was going to join all of us for dinner. With my wife insisting that surely his coming must be related to remorse at my inability to attend the previous evening's dinner, it was time to again hobble down half a flight of stairs then up a floor in the elevator and hobble down another half-flight to get to the dining room. After spending about ninety minutes chatting with the others, we were told that the VC would not be coming after all!

Although I had spent 48 hours in the beautiful North-East without once having stepped out of my maximally inaccessible guest- house, I had the satisfaction of at least having had a spectacular view of Kanchenjunga from the terrace of our guest house, and I achieved my primary purpose in undertaking the gruelling trip, which was to see a friend of mine in Kolkata who was not in the best of health! But the (invisible) VC had his own back by calling my bluff about being constrained to a wheel-chair by making me hobble up and down those stairs a fair number of times, thanks to the fundamental brilliance of his elevator.


In conclusion, I wish to assure my hosts that I do appreciate their sincere attempts to make my stay comfortable, but I also wish to stress that if I had indeed been wheelchair-bound then this trip would have been an unalloyed nightmare!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Nevermore


As the `raven quoth' in Edgar Allen Poe's play, it is hightime that all PWD take a consolidated stand to NEVER attend an event where some organisation (typically a government agency) offers to `honour' one, and then goes on to organise the event in an auditorium which is replete with an abundant supply of steps, with not even an apology of a ramp - in spite of being fully aware that the recipient of this `award' is confined to a wheelchair - and turn this `honor' into a thoroughly dishonourable event where the honouree is asked to either (i) leave the wheel-chair outside and walk `only 20 steps' (sic), or (ii) if the person just cannot walk, carried up like a sack of potatoes. As readers of my blog or newspaper articles know, I have, by now, become a master at disbelieving promises to take good care of you and make my numerous demands clear to my potential host, and then making as public a stink as possible, if my demands have not been met in spite of promising me that they will.

The latest victim of this kind of horrific insensitivity is Abha Khetarpal, who has been an e-friend for long. Here is the background. Abha is in a wheelchair and was one of four women featured in a documentary  movie `Accsex' that boldly tackled the theme of sexuality and people with disabilities. This movie was going to be honoured at the National Film Award Ceremony at Vigyan Bhawan by the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee. Abha had been excited for some days about being invited to this event, only to be treated to the usual insensitivity of the officials when such a dignitary is going to be present. These auditoria are crammed full of chairs and the only way a wheel-chair can be accommodated in such a place is in an aisle or right up front in front of the first row - and surely national security considerations could not permit such a potential hazard.

The only thing that will work is for ALL of us to say: if you want us at an event, then hold it where we can come; if you can't do that, you can shove your award where the sun don't shine'.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

I told you so!


A fews days ago, I arrived home a little past midnight some 9 hours after leaving my cousin's place, where I was staying during a few days' visit to Delhi; and went like a good citizen the next morning to exercise my franchise. Almost like a portent of things to come, my wheelchair had - yet again, for the umpteenth time - lost two bushes (which facilitate movement of the seat so that the chair can be folded for easier packing) in transit from Delhi to Chennai! Before we set off, my driver Sekar had very sweetly done a recce on his motor-cycle re the accessibility of the polling booth. He came back and said there was not much of a crowd and that we could go.

So we trooped off to the polling booth, after Sekar convinved several policemen/women on the way that I needed the car to take me up to the booth as I `couldn't walk'. We had taken a manual wheelchair in the vague hope that it might come in useful. But the parked motorcycles that almost covered half the width of the approach roads, and the total absence of pavements made that hope a non-starter. However the police personnel all along the route kindly flagged our car (with its suggestive wheelchair at the back) to within about 20 feeet of the building housing the polling booth.

To access the booth, you could either climb the five or six steps or use the ramp that ran parallel to the steps, attempting to climb the same height at a gradient ofalmost 45 degrees! Sekar pointed out that puhing me up that ramp woul be virtually impossible and that having reached the top, I would anyway have to walk the rest of the way because the approximately 5 foot wide corridor had been split down the middle by wooden poles so as to create an in-line and an out-line. So, as I had expected, I had to hobble all the way on Sekar's arm, only to look at an unappetising list of potential candidates one could vote for and finally vote for NOTA (None of the Above).

What this did convinced me of was (a) my booth, as well as many that my friends with assorted disability had had to go to, was completely inaccessible to one who was strictly wheelchair-bound and could not even hobble the few feet I had had to; (b) many of my visibly impaired friends had also not really been able to exercise a `secret ballot'; and (c) no time should be lost before launching  a systematic campaign - once the new government authorities had settled into their jobs - to set in motion a systematic plan to make the next elections (five years away) a truly inclusive process. This time was a definite improvement over the last one in terms of the courteousness of the authorities; in fact they were all so uniformly friendly and obviously eager to help that I did no want to seem rude and act the little paperazzi and take photographs illustrating the points made above, like the gradient of the ramp and the wooden poles.

Next time, I really hope that things will indeed be better.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Looking down the Barrel


In just about ten days, it will be my turn to cast my ballot in the current elections in India. I have very ambivalent feelings on whether I should even bother. I know it is considered the duty of every right-minded citizen of a country to do his civic duty come elecion day, and go exercise his/her franchise. Here are the reasons for my ambivalence.

I don't really relish the idea  of the mantle of PM passing to any of the realistic candidates for that position, least of all the one considered the front runner. This is a man who is almost universally believed to have deliberately turned the other way and ordered the police forces under his command as CM of his state to ignore and do nothing to stop communalist violence that resulted in death of a large number of Muslims. His latest rants against the ruling Congress party give an indication of how sensitive his administration will be to the need for universal design or barrier-free environments. According to a report in the New Indian Express (April 10th), he has referred to a former wheel-chair bound CM as an `apahij' (meaning cripple) going on to say `he is in a wheelchair..', thereby indicating that such a politician could not be effective. That same report goes on to his comparing the Congress Party leadership to a Bollywood movie wherein the family introduces a beautiful daughter at the time of finalising a marriage proposal and later switches sisters by introducing the one with a disability for the marriage ceremony. This font-runner further goes on to say The country does not want a deaf and handicapped government controlled at the centre. How low can people's insensitivity dip? And this is the man tipped to be our future PM!

The Congress candidate for PM has shown time and again that he is very adept at putting his entire foot in his mouth with his questionable oratory `skills'. The last person in this essentially three-horse race won a local election in Delhi, much to the pleased surprise of many, only to disappoint the hopeful potential future supporters of his party by acting overly hastily and consequently stepping down from his fledgeling career as Delhi CM. His party (called AAP, born just a few months ago) on the other hand has put up a manifesto which explicitly puts down its commitment to the betterment of the rights and lives of our women, as well as to the empowerment of PWD. Unfortunately, AAP is too young a party to hope to make any significant headway on its own this time around.

Finally, my experience of trying to vote last time around, and all the lack of accessibility at the polling booths, does not give me much courage to hope for any improvement in the infra-structural facilities, so my POA is to ask my wife to check out the scene, and then go myself to vote, only if she reports favourably on the state of (in)accessibility of the booth. On the positive side, I will start working soon after the elections, to get the local powers that be to clean up their act. (A disability activist friend of mine, Dr. Satendra Singh, has ben tirelessly hounding the Chief Election Commisioner in Delhi to so clean up their act, and still only reports partial success, with things staying much the same in many places!) I shall strive with like-minded friends, to start this programme right away and hope to have things in place in time for the next elections!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

A wonderland called Arushi



A little more than a year ago, I acquired an e-friend by virtue of the pieces I had been writing on matters concerning disability. Through her, I came to know of an organisation called Arushi which has been doing yeoman service for decades, facilitating children with various manners of impairment, rendering monuments of national importance accessible for people with disabilities, etc. And this woman e-friend,  a quite accomplished writer, used to wax eloquent on the theme of Arushi in particular, and Bhopal, in general. So it is that I have wanted to visit Bhopal and Arushi for a while now.

And as luck would have it, I found myself being invited to speak at a conference being organised by IISER Bhopal in mid-March. My wife, with interests in aechaeology, was waxing eloquent about Sanchi which she had visited many moons ago as a student. And my daughter also being around and relatively free, we trooped off en famille to Bhopal - after having made sure to ask my e-friend Shefali for some contacts at Arushi; and she had promptly obliged by giving me the phone numbers of Rohit and Anil.

This was a three-day conference at IISER, fixed for Friday-Sunday a few weeks ago. Although I had already told my host at IISER that I would be bunking a day of the conference so as to be able to visit Sanchi and Arushi, it turned out that the scheduling of the Conference was such that I could only take Sunday off. So I called Rohit, and asked him if I could visit Aruushi on Sunday afternoon; and he cheerfully said `any time is fine; only you won't see the children, because it is Sunday'. I explained to him that I really had no other time I could come (I was flying out of Bhopal early on Monday morning).

We left for Sanchi early on Sunday morning, and one of the first things I noticed on entering there on my wheelchair was the strip of tactile tiles throughout the area and I proudly told my family this could only be the handiwork of Arushi - which it was, indeed! After a very calming few hours at Sanchi, we returned to Bhopal for lunch before heading for Arushi. I had told Rohit I'd be there by 2,30 and we were unfortunately some 10 or 15 minutes late. When I called Anil to apologise (as I couldn't get throughto Rohit's phone), he said they were waiting for me.  The wonderful experience I had for the next few hours was possible only because of the obviously great regard and affection that my hosts had for Shefali, a long-time volunteer at Arushi. Tomorrow happens to be her birthday, and I wish to put together assorted photographs that my daughter clicked on my phone camera, and say: Thanks, and I hope this aid to nostalgia would start off a wonderful birthday, Shefali.

The board says it all

Lush greenery inside the premises

Lots of welcoming ramps
Bright happy colours


Octopus's garden?

Plenty of natural light and air

Anil making Rohit autograph a memento for me





Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Deja vu?


The memory of my last attempt (see the post Just another way we are sidelined in this blog) to be a civic-minded person and cast my vote is still too fresh in my memory for me to want to subject myself to an encore. So I had sort of decided that I would ignore the civic-minded half of my mind, and just refuse to participate in the electoral exercise that all India is going to be subjected to this year. But then, one of my group of disbility activists sent me an email yesterday saying she had received an email from the State Commissioner of the Differently Abled asking her to participate in a meeting with representatives of associations for Differently Abled People that was being convened to solicit opinions with a view to making the forthcoming elections an inclusive one; and she said she had replied saying we would all come and so I obediently put my earlier decisions re boycotting these elections on hold, and went to the venue of this meeting.

Our first exposure to this `Ground Floor Auditorium' was one with five steps at the entrance. Just as I was preparing to get hot under the collar, an obviously senior bureaucrat came and told us that we should go around to the side of the building which was equipped with ramps and was accessible. On going around the corner towards the side entrance, this is what we saw:

Accessible?!? 

Rubble and water and what not!



When we all finally managed to get in, everything was a bit chaotic - with an attempt being made by the three dignitaries on the dais that they were indeed making an effort to make this polling exercise a more inclusive one. Finally, one seemed to be receiving mixed signals and I still haven't decided what I will do come election day!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Ode to Kadambari


I had an unbelievable experience today. You see, there is this exercise I had been involved in with some freiends of mine (where we used this Groupspace called Roads4All to send one another emails) with the avowed common desire/goal of rescuing our public spaces from the tyranny of the automobile and returning it to the people by creating wider and barrier-free pavements which would be accessible  even to people with disabilities. I had had three or four earlier experiences of attempting such `access audits' for a few of of the 300 roads that the Chennai Corporation has promised to render so accessible. Some of those experiences (more than 3 months ago) - with such roads as Conran Smith Road, the roads on which SIET and Loyola Colleges are located, as also a triangle in Egmore involving the Police Commissioner's Office Road, Pantheon Road and another road whose name eludes my sieve-like memory - were thoroughly forgettable and disappointing experiences.

In the last three months, many of us were busy with trying to ensure that a certain fractious Bill on the `Rights of PWD' was not tabled and passed in unseemly haste in the dying moments of the reign of the current ruling party of the Central Govt. of India. Recently, I learnt a horribly ironic fact: a wonderful, vivacious young woman called Kadambari, who worked with Transparent Chennai, one of the organisations which roped our group (called DRA) into the Roads4All exercise, had lost her life a few weeks ago in an automobile accident in Bangalore!

Other organisations involved in this exercise are the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and Chennai City Connect Foundaion (CCCF). Not long after I heard the horrific news about Kadambari, we received an email from one of our ITDP friends to ask if we would be willing to assist in an audit of the busy and up-market 2nd Main Road in Besant Nagar. As it was the least that one could do for the fragrant memory that was Kadambari, four of us (3 from DRA and 1 from ITDP), met at more or less the southern end of 2nd Main Road (near the Spencer's there). And we began our leisurely stroll down the eastern side of the road - even ITDP could not talk the residents/commercial establishments into letting them perform the sidewalk-widening experiment on the western side of the road - pausing every few feet to point out possible improvements or potential hazards, and, of course, clicking away with our iPads and mobile phones to document various points. The point of this story is that the following unbelievable thing happened: I managed to travel a distance of close to a kilometre on my wheelchair; just conceive the existence of such a stretch of pavement in India! 

Amba put her iPad to good use and emailed me the following link within an hour of returning home from our evening walk:  http://sfy.co/tQtf

ITDP, CCCF, Transparent Chennai - and Chennai Corporation - have done an awesome job, at least of this stretch. Of course, there is still some room for improvement, but even this is tremendously creditable. You don't know how buoyed I have been feeling ever since our evening `walk' yesterday. Can you imagine me going out and buying a bunch of luscious greens from a vendor on our city streets? Thanks, Kadambari for your parting gift; and may this experience extend to many more places and make a reality of the  concept of making our public spaces our's!.


Saturday, 1 March 2014

Eye for an Eye


The last couple of days must be the nadir of inhumanity that some Indians have subjected some others to. What makes it particularly hideous is the way that ...

Let me start again, and start at the very beginning as a popular Julie Andrews song goes. Once there was a man called Gandhi who led the Indians to freedom by employing the till then unheard of notion of non-violent struggle. At that bloody time that witnesed Britain's partition of what was then India into India, West and East Pakistan, Gandhi said many eye-opening things. There is a scene in the movie `Gandhi' where one Hindu who had just lost his wife and child was ready to unsheathe his knife, go into the streets, looking for a possible Muslim, Gandhi told him to instead adopt a child, preferably Muslim, who had lost his parents due to the madness that was engulfing the people. He said if you demand on taking an eye for an eye, the whole world will soon be blind. I have no reason to believe this was not founded on fact! All India followed his lead in the Quit India movement against the British, and lovingly called him `Mahatma' - literally, great soul.

Now I want you to let the camera move about 65 years ahead to the Nadir I spoke of. There is another Gandhi, called Rahul who is trying to be the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Congress, only by virtue of his genealogy. For the uninformed, this Rahul is no relative of the Mahatma. He happens to be the great-grandson of Nehru, our first Prime Minister, and Nehru's daughter Indira was PM a little later, and she was married for a brief while to a man with the last name Gandhi. After Indira, her son Rajiv became PM. And Rajiv's son is Rahul; and now, for his role in this eye for an eye/Gandhi twist to the tale.

Rahul Gandhi has, for the first time, stated his readiness to lead the Congress party's essay in the forthcoming elections after his party has been putting up a miserable performance in their current - and conceivably last - term as the ruling party. They have made so many promises, and kept precious few of them. So he gets this brainwave to table and pass a number of these bills hurriedly in the last days of their tenure.

Now for a different tack: India pased the (Persons with Disability) PWD Act in 1995 with the good motive of respecting the rights of PWD to equality in education, accessibility to public buildings, and equality in the eyes of the Law. Later, the UN drafted a Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007. Shortly thereafter India unconditionally ratified the UNCRPD. So far so good.

Many years go by, the 1995 Act is seen to be toothless in enforcing its suggestions, and ratification of the UN CRPD seems to be a meaningless lip-service, and after making sporadic noises on redrafting a `functional' Bill, and one sees drafts in 2011 and 2012, each looking progressively worse than its precessor. all of a sudden, an unholy alliance is made in December 2013 between a Mr. Javed Abidi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi. Now this Javed is one who has once done a non-trivial amount of good for the PWD sector; but he tends to be autocratic and he likes to convey the impression to all and sundry that he is `the leader' of this sector. He gets the bright idea of doing a hatchet job of the prior drafts of the RPD Bill, claims to `include' some more kinds of disabilities in the ambit of this RPD Bill 2014, which, according to him, will be a game-changer and make the whole world much better for the roughly 70 million people with disabilities in India. The final master-stroke is for him to convince Rahul that all Indian PWD want and need this Bill to be passed, to include *his* RPD Bill in the list of Bills to be tabled and passed, and hence be seen as the champion of the unfortunate by passing this Bill.

Fortunately there are several disability activists who have spotted the numerous flaws and dreadful consequences that would accrue from passing this Bill, and thave been raising objections to this diabolical plan. After Rahul failed to pass this and several other Bills, they came up with the idea of trying to pass these Bills via the route of Ordinances sneaked in with the help of a President who had not too long ago been a minister during the Congress' rule. When news of this leaks out, several visibility impaired people join in a protest march in places like the Congress Party's Office and the residence of Rahul Gandhi. The next thing one hears is that the police have started lathi-charging the blind protesters. They then enclose all these people in a pen created by police barriers on three sides and a wall on the fourth side; and these people are not allowed to drink any water, or to use any restroom facilities; and the whole thing is done crudely and harshly. The group that had gathered outside Rahul's house included, in its number, a persom who had already lost use of one eye; this lad had won medals in archery at the Abilympics, and he had even been decorated with an `Arjuna Award -  by the (current) President of India. He was also brutally manhandled, and received lacerations in the one good eye, and was moved to the operating table. There have been conflicting reports on the state of his good eye.

And the really mind-blowing fact is that the Press and TV Media have hardly thought it fit to say anything about this grotesque cruelty being dealt out to people voicing their concerns in a non-violent way. Makes one wonder whether this media is part of the Fourth estate or Fifth column. Tomorrow seems to be the last stand of this cabinet trying to meet to pass the ordinnces on a Sunday. Talk of devotion to duty! Thus has this Gandhi interpreted the `eye for an eye' idiom that was used so compassionately by the Mahatma.

But just as the non-violent followers of Mahatma Gandhi received blows from an inhuman British army nevertheless won their war because of the supremacy of good over evil, so will the opponents with disabilities of Rahul Gandhi overcome the self-serving people who are trying to pass this Bill purely for the gratification of their inflated egos.