Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan)

According to a recent draft of the National Building Code, "it will be mandatory for all airports and railway stations to have toilets accessible to the disabled. However, this is not mandatory for 14 other kinds of public places including office buildings, cinemas, convention halls, theatres, art galleries, libraries, museums, hotels, restaurants, schools and educational institutions". (This building code would seem to say disabled people need not attend movies or theatre, eat out in restaurants, or even worse, need not go to school or college lest they might want to use a toilet or be fortunate enough to find employment in an office, where they might need to use the toilet during working hours!)

Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) proclaims that it is the vision of the Government to have an inclusive society where equal opportunities and access is provided for the growth and development of PWDs to lead productive, safe and dignified lives.

It also proclaims an `Action Plan'  which includes the creation of a Steering Committee and Programme Monitoring Unit with representation of Accessibility Professionals and experts; and such experts working in the disability sector are invited to send their particulars with details of experience to the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities or by sending email to mukesh.harvard@gmail.com

If you want to pick a cricket team with a chance of winning anything, do you do so by requesting `experts to send in a bio-data to an appropriate Government Department' or by doing some small homework on who the experts are by asking around? You would find consensus on the best people within a very very short time indeed! If you did that, you would know you have to look no further than Shivani Gupta of AccessAbility or Anjlee Agarwal of Samarthyam, both conveniently located in Delhi. Or if, unlike most decision makers in Delhi, you were prepared to consider the possibility of such expertise existing outside Delhi, you could look up `Disability Rights Alliance' or Bhargav Sundaram of Callidai Motor Works, both in Chennai. (By the way, Bhargav has been sending emails for more than a week now, with serious suggestions to various people in the field trying to put a mechanism in place by which this effort would really be a serious effort rather than just another bit of lip-service; and he seems to have received no official response from Delhi!) If you are really serious about doing what the avowed `Action Plan' above promises, please respond to me. I will give you some email addresses of people to whom this business of accessibility is a very serious matter. You could ask each of them for some names of people doing good work in this area, and you will be surprised at the size of the overlaps of the different lists you will receive.

So in the hope that something clicks, I am posting this in my blog as well as sending an email to the address given above.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Whichche din? Certainly not this month!

The first few days of December have been some of the most nerve-wracking and miserable that it has been my misfortune to live through. The reader of my last post would know I was hoping to go with my wife to New Zealand to be with our daughter for our 25th wedding anniversary, and I was anxiously waiting for the medical assessors of NZ immigration to stop pondering over the weighty matter of the possible implications that giving an Indian with MS a two-week visitor visa might have for the national health or health care facilities and consequently for the national treasury. I had already bought tickets a while ago when they were not prohibitively highly priced, according to which I should have left Chennai not long after midnight on the 8th. When it became clear that I was not going to get an answer one way or the other even on the 4th, I had to cancel our tickets so I wouldn't suffer a heavy loss as a `no show' come flight time on the 8th. That was strike one.

On the other hand, we had come to Bangalore for a conference in Bangalore during the first few days of the month. This had the one positive consequence that we had come away from Chennai when it witnessed the heaviest rains in more than a century and was subjected to unbelievable flooding; roads, railway lines and airport connections to the outside world were all shut down, and the city witnessed  the kind of horror no one would ever want their worst enemy to witness - no power for several days on end, water-logging in streets necessitating rescue teams in dinghys helping to evacuate people from the islands their homes had become, many houses/apartments on the ground floor being inundated with two or three feet deep water.... But the city also witnessed amazing selfless acts day after day to voluntarily help others in distress, and there were no reports of crime of the sort associated to times when there are blackouts. The world heard praises being heaped on the city, and the citizens announced proudly that they were Channaiites! Chennai lost more than 300 lives, a bit more than the fatalities in Paris, and received a minuscule proportion of the bytes the Paris tragedy was showered with by the world media. With further rain forecast for the second week, we have been told to stay in Bangalore for another week and only then come back! Even Chennai airport only started resuming all normal flights on the 7th. So our fond hopes of leaving 7th/8th night for Wellington were stymied by meaningless bureaucratic delays and climate-change induced unprecedented flooding. Strike two!

December 3rd, the International day of Persons with Disabilities, saw another fiasco (this time, a predictable one!) The Prime Minister of India had advertised the inaugration of a grand programme for rendering the country an accessible place for the enormous number of PWD in the country. When I heard about it from my disability activist friends in Delhi, I asked them to check on the accessibility of the venue chosen for this `marquee event'. What I heard from them did little to diminish my fears regarding the true outcome of this scheme announced amid such pomp and glamour. Only the first two rows were accessible to people in wheelchairs, and it was then literallly a case of `devil take the hindmost'. Strike three and you are out!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Will it be an MSed opportunity

Let me lead up to my pitch with a bunch of seemingly unrelated facts:
  • Some time ago, I had clubbed one of my many academic visits to mathematician friends in Sydney with a brief visit to Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand. My wife really wanted to visit New Zealand, but I had to disappoint her because my monthly take-home paycheck was nowhere near as healthy then as it is today. 
  • My wife and I will be having our 25th wedding anniversary this December.
  • Our daughter (in fact, only child) has been living in Wellington, New Zealand, where she is pursuing a one year programme at the film school there.
  • So I thought `what better way of killing two birds with one stone' than our spending a few weeks around our wedding anniversary with our daughter, driving around some of this beautiful country and seeing as much of it as we can.
  • The missing ingredient to this pot pourri of facts is that unlike my bank balance, I am not as healthy today as I was when I visited New Zealand without my wife. I got Multiple Sclerosis some twelve years ago, as a result of which I have been operating out of a wheelchair throughout the current decade.

Now, let me put all these ingredients together into my mystery story. My wife and I applied for our visas to enter New Zealand. Somewhere in that application form, I had to mention the fact that I had multiple sclerosis. A week later, I received an email from the Immigration New Zealand office in Mumbai, saying I had to submit complete medical requirements through one of their empaneled doctors. So I go and undergo all these tests - incidentally incurring an expense of around 200 NZD. I sent a scanned copy I received from the hospital to the lady in the INZ office in Mumbai who had set the cat among the pigeons in the first place, incidentally asking how much longer it should take for us to obtain our visas. And her answer is that while the medical reports have been sent to the medical assessor, the normal `turnaround time for receiving the assessment' is 12 WEEKS. (And this is in spite of my having submitted copies of a letter from my doctor (at least twice) to the effect that I was capable of going to New Zealand or anywhere, as I was was traveling with my care-giver (wife). And my doctor is an eminent neurologist of international renown, as is apparent from his letter-head!) I told her that my receiving the reports in 12 weeks - which would take us to some time in February! - would be useless for me, iterating that part of the initial reason for this New Zealand idea was to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary that fell in mid-December with a daughter now working in New Zealand, and requesting that she put in a special request to the medical assessor. Answer:  `the medical assessor does not entertain any requests'.

Being a moderately accomplished mathematician (see my home-page at  http://www.imsc.res.in/~sunder/), I have traveled to numerous countries, more than once in many cases, and have NEVER applied for a visa more than 4 months ahead of the expected date of travel, nor have I ever had a visa application turned down. If this requirement is being imposed on me for no reason other than my MS - which is not even a contagious disease that will threaten the health of people in the vicinity - then it will be a violation of at least five or six of the following principles enunciated in Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (to which convention New Zealand became a signatory on 30 March 2007 according to the Wikipedia):

The principles of the present Convention shall be:

(a) Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one's own choices, and independence of persons;

(b) Non-discrimination;

(c) Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;

(d) Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;

(e) Equality of opportunity;

(f) Accessibility;

(g) Equality between men and women;

(h) Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

I haven't got to this stage of my life by taking things lying down. I still haven't given up hope of being with our daughter on our wedding anniversary: I am hoping that somebody in New Zealand will see this blogpost and decide to do some disability activism and take up cudgels on my behalf.

By the way, the mystery I was alluding to in this story is how it is going to end: will the good guys win or be thwarted by what can best be described as an unwarranted and unnecessary bureaucracy that refuses to look at the facts and do the only possible decent thing under the circumstances. Nothing in the visa form said I would need to take a medical! The form talks only about people wanting to come for six months or more. I only wish to spend a measly two weeks. I will have overseas medical insurance, and in the unlikely event that my `condition' should manifest itself in another episode, and that my insurance will not pay for this pre-existing condition, I have given enough proof of my financial solvency to show that I can pay for whatever expenses are incurred; and nobody will be left with a a destitute and unwell Indian on their hands! Is there no way a person with MS can travel between international borders?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Why is our mindset naturally negative and non-inclusive?

I have given way to this kind of hyperventilating when writing about my experiences as a wheel-chair user wanting to fly in a commercial aircraft. What never fails to get my goat is how people everywhere assume that the loss of your locomotor functions means the loss of everything else; hey, we can still think, often much more lucidly than the `pitying helper'; we still are sensitive of our rights; we will not tolerate being treated like masses of protoplasm worth nothing but nuisance value.

Let me expand on this gripe. Whenever I travel in a wheelchair, normally accompanied by my wife, some official (officious?) bozo will ask me to wait by the side, and then take her somewhere else to ask her the reason for our being there. Never mind the fact that I am the guy who has filled all the forms - even her's - and that I am much more likely to know the answers to their questions. This always happens at airports; there was a time when I would always insist on being taken where she was. These days, confident that she knows the routine perfectly well, I often give up this cussed insistence on being taken along. I don't mind not insisting when such insistence will mean that somebody will have to push my wheelchair from the point I would have been abandoned to the point she would have been taken to `take care of the business end'. But the last few days were the rock bottom of this kind of treatment. We had gone to have our passports renewed. I had spent the previous few days getting the various papers and xerox copies ready, put them all together in a handy folder before trooping off for this expedition after having ascertained that this particular office (in Saligramam, Chennai) was accessible to my wheelchair - which is battery operated and I do not need anybody to push it, as I can drive it wherever I need to go, if only there are ramps, and elevators have wide enough doors and are roomy enough to take at least one person other than me and my wheelchair (in case of an emergency).

Back to my story: there is a ramp to enter the building from the parking lot, but with an impossibly steep gradient. So, Sekar, my driver and trusted Sancho Panza in all my Quixotic travels/jousts, gets out of the car and helps push my motorised wheelchair up this Himalayan slope, before going back to park our faithful Rosinante until needed again. Once at the top, we are asked the time for which we have been given an appointment and sent accordingly to one (less populated) room. As soon as we go in, up pops this officious uniformed bimbo, who tells us that Sita, my wife, can take all the papers and go to the right to where the lines are, while I am told that I can go to the next room and wait, `not having to worry' about the formalities, which can be taken care of by my wife. It is absolutely useless my saying I know what is where and that it makes more sense for me to take care of the `formalities'. I get sent nevertheless into the next room behind a locked door. It occurred to me a bit later that she shouldn't submit the old passports until the relevant people know that they held US visas valid for a few more years. I had to catch the aforementioned bimbo's eye through the minor chink of visibility afforded by a turnstile there, and make pleading gestures for him to come through the locked door. He came with a look of pained resignation saying she'll take care of things, just stay cool here. When I absolutely insisted, he said `see all the crowds of people; I don't want you to distutb them with your wheelchair'. He finally relented only when I asked him if I had no right to go into any of these rooms just because I was in a wheelchair; but even then, he reluctantly gave in only with a `but don't go bumping into people'.

Once inside, the common public were much more helpful. In fact, I had finished all I had to do and was told I could go home within 45 minutes of entering; but for some strange reason, we had to wait inordinately long for Sita's token numbers to appear on the screen. After the last such wait, she went into some room where she was told that the records showed that she had written in some appliecation form 15 years ago that her parents' names were nothing remotely like their names, and was asked to take some form to an officer in a neighbouring room. This lady stared at the monitor screen for some ten minutes wondering how this could be, and finally suggested that we go to their `back office' two days later and get something done so this would not be a recurring problem and we finally got back home almost four hours after we set out.

Two days later, I had to go with Sita although my passport issues had been resolved, because, owing to some neurological problem, her handwriting has become practically illegible so much so that I have to fill all forms for her. And here we were off again on a pleading mission to allow me and my wheelchair in. Although the office was supposed to open only at 10, we were asked to get there by 9. The Indians are great believers in going early so as to finish early. All that resultts is a huge crowd before the doors are even opened, and they are all trying to rush in as soon as they can. Sita and I were there at 9 as instructed and we went and stood next to the sliding door at the entrance. Even before that door was opened, a guy in a security guard uniform came and suggestdd that I wait in the side because of the crowd and suggested that only Sita go in and finish everything while I wait outside `calmly'. It had  to take an argument with steadily rising decibel levels, finally culminating in my asking him in chaste Tamil if I had no right to enter the room, before I would even be allowed to enter. And when we could finally enter, he first asked Sita and me to enter, asked her to sit on the first of a row of chairs, and asked me to move farther near some counters and away from the chairs `so people could sit comfortabbly'. `Can't I go any bloody place in my wheelchair? Why shouldn't I park my chair next to her chair and sit there?' `Ok, I was only thinking the wheelchair may be in the way of other people'. `Just watch me park it and see if anybody has any trouble going around it!' I must have reacted equally irritatedly to many other such automatically negative reactions from people suggesting I stay put and Sita go in and take care of things `only because you need not be inconvenienced'. Finally my solution was `She needs me as a scribe'. The story has a happy ending however, because we were finally led to a sensible (sensitive?) officer who asked Sita to write a signed letter explaining that an error had mysteriously entred their records in 1998, whereby her parents'  names had been listed as nothing remotely close to their actual names, after which we have been issued passports with no questions asked until this time, and that all six or seven passports issued in the past uniformly announce her parents' names to be what they are, that she has no idea how this erroneous note exists in their files, and could this problem please be rectified and she be issued a new passport? I explained the reason for my presence to the nice man, and then drafted such a letter in my hand-writing, and finally got her signature. He read it, sent Sita somewhere nearby to get the letter and an attendant note by him scanned and told me nicely (!) that I would not need to go and that we could leave in about ten minutes confident that this nuisance would not recur because of notings he had made on the offending file - and I came back to the institute finally by 12.30 to return to my daily routine in my sane and inclusive cocoon of my institute!

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Civic Sense, will you please inhabit the Indian psyche?

What are the solutions to these ills in our society?

People drive through a red light because no other car sems to be making use of a green light?

There are no traffic lights with a green for pedestrians in major intersections?

If at all a city thought it fit to have reserved handicapped parking, some fat jerk, probably with connections among the rich and famous, shamelessly parks his car in one (or maybe even straddling two) of these reserved spots.

Even if a city corporation strives to have usable and wide pavements for the use of pedestrians, some studly motorcycle rider rides his bike up onto the pavement and parks it right across that pavement so no pedestrian can bypass this bike without some gymnastics that would make a Nadia Comenicii proud - people in wheelchairs, BAH!

People park bikes (motorised or otherwise) at the foot of the occasional ramp that might have been provided, thus rendering the ramp useless.

People wanting to turn rignt at an intersection with traffic lights happily wait at the top of the left-most lane, thereby forcing the would be left turner behind him to fret and fume when a free left turn light comes up and consequently being forced to wait as much as five minutes, till the unconditional green light comes around again and the insensitive driver can cut across traffic wanting to go straight, and the luckless left-turner will be permitted to go his way. The amazing thing is that this even happens the other way, with would-be left-turners waiting at the top of the right lane.

Buses are impossible for use by people with visibility or mobility impairment. They typically park briefly some fifty feet past the bus stop and ten feet from the pavement (into the road), and some twenty people run in a mad scramble to merely be able to grab some part of the bus and stand precariously on the steps before the bus zooms away even as people are trying to get on! How far is that from a society where the bus parks exactly in front of the bus stop and the driver lowers a mechanical lift to enable a wheelchair user to get into the bus and then personally comes by and locks the wheelchair into safety belts? How many more centuries before you can ever hope to see that happening in India?

Bottom line: until EVERYBODY respects the rights of EVERYBODY else, there is no use of building ramps, or `changing the very paradigms of skill training in terms of improving the pedagogy, introducing multi-dimensional technology that enables e-content solutions and improving the capacities of Institutions/NGOs offering skill training to PwDs' as a recent article in TOI glibly suggested.

Hon. PM Modiji, can you please stop traipsing all over the world, making grand speeches and initiating any number of new schemes with long Sanskrit names which will usher in the long advertised acche din, and GET REAL and make it possible for people like me to get out of our homes, on to the roads, and lead a `normal life'! While the news blares on and on about swachh bharat,  newspapers carry stories almost every day of people (`of a certain caste') dying due to suffocation by noxious fumes from sewers of shit they have to dive into to unclog them (for the sake of people of `higher' castes, who cannot do this work which is reserved for the aforementioned caste)!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Hypocrites or Hippocrates

Memories of the family doctor paying house calls and enquiring, in leisurely fashion about the well-being of some common acquaintance seem to have become just that - a throw-back to times when people had time to write long six page letters by hand, and to observe common pleasantries in human relations.

Today, if you have the misfortune of needing the services of a doctor, there is little sign or time for pleasantries. The first few impressions are negative in the extreme: firstly, you are asked to come to a clinic at something like 7 am on a working day. One thing the receptionist will be prompt about is to get you to register (Rs. N(1) down `for consultation' if you are given a bill); secondly, it is not at all uncommon to be asked a half-hour later to go and get some test done (Rs. N(2) more down, before you may have even seen the doctor). If you are lucky, your name will be called at 11.30 am, and you finally get to see the Wizard of Oz - who will then ring a bell, in response to which one of the crisply uniformed young women who talked to you about N(k) for some k, will come in bearing a file, after glancing quickly at which, the Wizard will scribble something on the last page which can only be deciphered by another Wizard, and you will be informed that you have to buy a certain list of medicines (another N(3) + ... +(N(k) down), consume them at specified times and in specified amounts, and the smart young woman will escort you to a counter to give you the prescription. In all this while, the Wizard will not have breathed a word describing your condition or its potential future course.

The title refers to the fact that all doctors, upon - or maybe even before - earning the right to cure the unwell, have to take the so-called Hippocratic oath. Let me interject a couple of sentences from that oath (in italics) in the text below to drive home some points that needs to be made:

I will hang out my neck and say many (most?) of our doctors have to pay huge bribes before they can get admitted into a suitable programme; and this money must be recovered. Their equivalent of the bookie for our IPL cricketeers are agents from various pharmaceutical companies who line up at their clinics trying to convince them to prescribe the medicines whose samples their bags are full of! I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. The clinics mushrooming around the country are all acquiring their own scanning machines of various kinds (all of which cost BIG sums of money); is it any wonder that you keep getting asked to get a plethora of tests and scans done even when you are merely suffering from a stomach ache, and buy a slew of medicines which are often totally unnecessary?

The point of this post, however, is really to point out the obstacles they put in the way of people with disabilities (God help them particularly if they are of the `mentally ill' variety). Here are a couple of instances reported in the papers not long ago illustrating the horrible levels that the interpretations of the Hippocratic oath (I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm) have descended to:




Can't a hospital which advertises itself as accepting insurance policies for people with disabilities be sued in court for refusing to take in such a patient?

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Time again to be reminded: `not for you, Jack'!

Every year, on this day, all India gets together to celebrate its Independence Day. I"m sorry, I should have qualified that to  `all but the many millions of people with disabilities' who are denied the right or ability to be independent by a cussedly stubborn refusal by the powers that be to permit them to lead independent lives in an inclusive society. In fact, after all the census-taking exercises, our demographers are still unable to come up with a precise count of the number of Indian citizens who suffer from disability of some sort. All the Bills or Laws that spout inanities about the rights of these people are not worth the paper they are written on. As I only have first-hand experience of the trials and tribulations of those forced to use wheelchairs, I shall only rant on those. People with cerebral palsy, or menial illness of some sort, or visual, auditory or speech impairments, or disabilities of various ilk will have their own tales to tell.

I do not have the independence to go to a movie, play or concert for several reasons: (i) I cannot get out of my house in my wheelchair for fear of getting grievously injured or killed by some speeding maniac on a motor-cycle or in a car; (ii) I cannot get onto or off a pavement because our town-planners simply do not bother to equip our pavements with cutaways or ramps; (iii) in any case, there are so many obstructions on the pavements (if indeed there are any pavements) that navigating on them in a wheelchair is a pipe-dream; (iv) our public transportation is simply unusable by a wheelchair-user; (a bunch of us went through a heart-breaking experience performing an `access audit' of the much touted CMRL) (v) and if, in spite of all odds, I got to the Museum Theatre or the Alliance Francaise for that play, I need that magic carpet to take me and my wheel-chair up all those steps.

And the Government gets all coy and calls people like me `differently able' and when I find myself having to get out of the comfortable cocoon of my wheelchair and climb that inevitable step or two, there is no dearth of people who are ready to help me - only, their idea of helping is to grab me by my upper arm and try to essentially power me along (repeated requests to desist (chod dhijiye mujhe) are forgotten until the next tricky stair that has to be navigated).

All this ranting on my part is in spite of my being one of those guys who is lucky to be financially quite comfortably off and have a considerable support system set in place after years of planning and demanding my right. If I was not so solvent, I would have no option but to stay at home all day - simply because I just could not get out of my home.

Happy Independence Day! Jai Hind!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Hey Mr. Politician, can you briefly do what we have to do forever?

I wish to throw down the gauntlet to our politicians in Chennai. I challenge any of them to carry on a normal full workload, but confined to a wheelchair for a full week. I'll make demands of varying levels of `toughness' so they see how one section of their electorate across the financial spectrum lives.

On their first day, they may come to work in their chauffeur-driven car. The trick here will be how they navigate the steps and the toilets, and find ways of entering buildings which do not have ramps.

On their second day, they will have to fly to a different city for a meeting, and take an evening flight back home.

At the end of the third day, they will need to attend a function in a typically inaccessible hotel, go to a movie or a concert, and finally have dinner in a restaurant which is NOT in a five-star hotel.

On the fourth day, they will have to take an approximately three hour train journey to a neighbouring town, attend a meeting in a community hall there, and come back by train. (Entering and getting off the train will be one of the special joys to be experienced here.)

On the fifth day, they will go to work by public transport and do a full day's work. They could use public buses or the fancy new metro, whose praises our newspapers are so full of.

I believe a similar regimen has been used for newly recruited IAS officers and legislators in Odisha. What prompted this mail was (a) my trip to Delhi for a two-day meeting at what is often considered the `premier' science academy of the country, at the end of which, my wheelchair almost came undone and is undergoing a serious overhaul, so that I will be ready to go for another meeting in Mumbai next week-end (my body revolting in various ways all the time, from upset stomachs to aching limbs), and (b) a friend of mine sending an email suggesting that we follow the example where the mayor of Reykjavik has promised to go out and navigate the city centre before long - in response to an online challenge from a disabled person (sic) to go about his daily business in a wheelchair.

In the next weeks, they can try going blindfolded or with their ears stuffed with cotton wool so they can't hear!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Eternal optimism vs. refusal to accept reality

We finally got to do our much-advertised access audit of CMRL; as the theme-song of `Love Story' goes, `where do I begin, to tell the story...'? One short interlude towards the end of this evening best describes the string of disappointments in store for us. An architect, no doubt working with CMRL, had been accompanying us, most likely charged with the task of humouring us and making sure nobody fell into the tracks! At one point, more than two hours into the exercise, he made this suggestion to Vaishnavi (who, incidentally, was the person with whom I made my initial visit to the Koyambedu CMRL, which I wrote about in my last post in this blog): "It would help if you give  us any international standards /guidelines you may have access to". Vaishnavi glared at him and asked `who, rather, what, are you? " He said "I am an architect" with a touch of annoyance. Vaishnavi digested this slowly and said "I should shoot you" before going on to give the startled chap a brief survey of the story chronicled in my last blog, on how we had been begging the CMRL for close to three years to look at the various documents we had been repeatedly sending them!

Rather than boring you with a blow-by-blow description of the evening, let me simply mention the more glaring goofs.

* When the train comes to the platform, there is a non-trivial gap between the rake and the platform - so much in fact that the little front wheels of manually operated wheelchairs run a serious and dangerous risk of slipping into the gap if, by chance, it rotates through 90 degrees, as is likely when it attempts to navigate the 2-3 inch height difference between the platform and the floor of the train.

The gap

* In order to avoid the danger described above, it becomes necessary to turn around and reverse into the train, as the front wheel is large and runs no such danger; but this means propelling oneself up and backwards to get into the train. Given that the train doors are open only for half a minute, and that there are likely to be some fifty or more other `normal' people pushing every one and thing in the way in order to to get into the train, all this is not very encouraging to the wheelchair user.

* To add spice to the exercise, there is a Trishul-shaped object bang in the middle between the doors on either side of the train, intended for people to hang on to, which one should manoeuvre around, and find something to hang on to. There is nothing like a seat belt which one can lock one's wheelchair to.

* The ticket counters are not low enough for use by people in a wheelchair. To make matters worse, you cannot buy  return ticket for A-B-A. When we finally got to `B' (which was Koyambedu for us), I needed to use a toilet. A helpful samaritan told me there were toilets at both `concourse' and `platform' levels, while we needed to go the `concourse' level to buy tickets to get back to A' (Alandur). And there was no sign at platform level as to where one may find the elusive toilets.

* So I go down to the Concourse level; and the first problem was getting past the turnstile. As our group had got separated when we boarded the train at Alandur, we had stopped at an intemediate station, to get into a later train they must all be coming on. And then, I learnt you should complete the travel from A to B within prescribed time-limits. So when I inserted my token in the turnstile, it wouldn't open. I would have learnt the reason for this if my wheelchair had been a few feet taller, when I would have been able to see a red light flashing and a sign explaining why it was flashing. One of the people who was `escorting' me told me this as also where I should go to pay the excess fine of some Rs. 10 in order to get through.

* By now, I am ready to use that toilet, and am directed to a `Gents' toilet, which is clearly not accessible. When I find no signs which may give me a clue, I ask somebody who tells me the only disabled friendly toilet is on the platform level! Meanwhile, I've got to go! So I go to the gents' toilet, and find, on opening the door, that I have to walk across a room which has two wash basins and water all over the floor, which I need to gingerly negotiate before going to the room with the WC.

* After all this, and rubbing my wet hands on my jeans rather than use the unappetising towel next to the wash-basin, I bought my ticket to Alandur prior to ascending to the platform level and joining my fridnds.

And could not get home soon enough, to lick my wounds after this throughly demoralising experience best descaribed by the architect-Vaishnavi conversation mentioned early on.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Being optimistic in spite of so many misses is what makes PwD survive

We at the `Disability Rights Alliance' (DRA) have been trying to work with the Chennai Metro Rail for more than two years, trying to ensure that at least this mode of public transport might possibly try to make sure to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. For example, I have an email dated Jan 1, 2013, addressed to a CMRL official where I try to describe a very dispiriting recce made by two of us from DRA of the CMBT CMRL which, according to the Hindu of Dec.18, 2012, was one of two stations whose structures were then complete. This is what I said in that email:

It appears that (the Hindu's report notwithstanding),the station is likely to become operational only around September. We asked the people at the site if we could look at the drawings and check out such details as dimensions of elevators, toilets for the disabled, gradients of ramps, etc.

Unfortunately, the drawings we could see did not have many of these details. I wonder if it will be possible for you to send us an e-copy of the latest drawings, complete with all details. In fact, some details such as dimensions and specifications - right down to flooring slip resistance, lighting lumens etc, would be appreciated.

(DRA’s requests (as expressed from the start) were

   - Progress update on recommendations submitted so far
   - Transparency in sharing information to enable accurate inputs with the   group, or the appointment of an Accessibility Consultant to ensure the same.   
- Disclosure to the public on what accessibility features will be   present / possible, and workaround suggestions for what will be   inaccessible so that the common passenger knows what to expect.
   - Enable disabled citizens of this State to be apprised of CMRL progress   by making its website compliant as per GIGW / WCAG 2 guidelines.
   - Ensure as far as possible, the following accessibility features as   best practice / compliance : as outlined by ACCESS FOR ALL - Best   Practices <http://rehabcouncil.nic.in/pdf/module3.pdf>
   - Tactile tiles on all common passages with tactile warnings for abrupt   change in height or near hazardous areas for visually impaired
   - Signs printed in braille in the lifts to indicate floors as well as   visual / audible announcements
   - Elevator control buttons with braille  positioned at heights that are   accessible to wheelchair users
   - Grip rails on 3 walls of the elevator car at a height between   850-900mm.
   - Wide doors for lifts The lift door must have an ideal width of at   least 900 mm and an ideal surface area of  1800mm x 1200mm
   - The ticket counter maximum height limit to be restricted to 800mm to   be accessible to wheelchair users.
   - Ticket checking machine placement should allow wheelchair user passage   or there should be some alternative entry & exit for wheelchair users.
   - Accessible toilet
   - Adequately lit, non-slip flooring with ramps at the entrance of every   station (maximum slope 1:12)
   - Adequate landing space at the start and end of every ramp
   - Simple, uniform terminal design avoiding glossy surfaces / glass, and   standardised pictobraille signage for people with cognitive difficulty
   - Steps with contrast coloured nosing
   - Handrails must be placed at height between 850-900 mm on both sides of   staircase & ramp.
   - The height of the drinking water tap should be at a height less than   900mm.
   - Gap between platform and rail car should enable  a wheelchair user or   a person with a mobility device to enter and exit the train safely and   independently as far as possible.
   - Barriers between rail cars to alert customers who are blind or have   low vision of the space between the rail cars so they do not mistake this   space for the door to the inside of the rail car.
   - Bumpy tiles to alert customers who are blind or have low vision that   they are nearing the edge of the platform
   - Induction loops at ticket counters for hearing impaired passengers
   - Out of service elevator alert system)

I, for my part, would like to make two specific requests/recommendations:

(i) Can you please appoint an Accessibility consultant (such as Shivani Gupta of AccessAbulity, who is herself wheelchair-bound,  in whose competence/sensitivity almost every disabled person would have total confidence) to ensure that our various concerns will be safeguarded?

(ii) or if (i) is not feasible for some reason, can you please provide us with an itemised list of how the various issues discussed in the attachment Accessibility-Inputs-For-Chennai-Metro-Rail.pdf have been addressed by CMRL?

And we have been trying ever since to pin one of those officials down to meeting with us and reassure with plans that met international accessibility standards ... and trying ... and trying!

Two-and-a-half years later, yet another member of DRA finally managed, after what must have been a record number of phone-calls and emails, to extract a promise that several officials of CMRL would meet with a bunch of us this Wednesday (24/06/15) at 4 pm. We were all excited that we would finally have a chance to talk to them and get some details before the metro becomes operational - since it is so expensive to retrofit something that has already been constructed with serious drawbacks in its plans. 

We then get an email sent by another of our colleagues - at 12.25 on Wednesday - that she had just received a phone call from the CMRL office to tell her that Due to some urgent calls by the Government the entire team had to do an urgent inspection and report of all the stations. They have rescheduled the meeting for after the 5th of July. None of the larger team that was a part of our earlier meeting will be available today.

Now we learn the reason for the sudden cancellation: Clear of by-poll, CM may launch the metro on Sunday, yesterday's newspapers announced. So, as usual, we can only hope they got it right. In spite of multiple requests that access audits be performed in advance, preferably by an access expert who is herself a PwD, such requests are treated as mindless baying in the wind, and they continue to make mistakes - and retro-fitting, being prohibitively expensive, will never be considered - so that would be yet another opportunity lost.

I guess I must take heart from the great democratic tradition in India: even people without disabilities run the same risk!

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Unwarranted machinations and meddling

This post is not related to my customary `disability activism'. I have been driven to putting on my cap as Professor of Mathematics and write this piece since spotting that `something is rotten in the state of our academia'. The level of bullying/badgering of directors of what were once called `institutes of national importance' by government authorities is assuming alarming proportions, in what seems to be in the nature of an absolutely `no holds barred' form of street-fighting. Ministries have no compunctions about making public statements which, in civil(ised) society, would be grounds for filing defamation charges. The process of making fresh appointments of directors to institutes had been going on smoothly for almost sixty six years. The mathematically astute would have noticed that it has been close to sixty seven years since independence. The year's shortfall is not an oversight : that is the period since the last national elections, and has not strictly been acche din for our institutes of higher learning.

Until recently, a sort of system had evolved for the method of deciding on who would take over as the next director of a scientific institute when the existing one was coming close to the end of his/her tenure. Academic Councils were  staffed with academically qualified people, who would `spread the word', solicit the views of senior scientists of the institute in question, and look for some sort of consensus on suitable candidates. And this system had been working reasonably well.

But, within the past few months, there has been a spate of instances of appointments, whose high handed methods have led to consternation and an unease that these decisions, which would ideally be made on the basis of academically sound criteria by academically sound people, are being made with `academic soundness' being replaced by `what Delhi wants'. Although this post is primarily about how the scientific institutions are wilting under this new regimen, I will start with a non-science example, but one of the most flagrant such examples (as pointed out to me by a friend and another distinguished alumnus of ISI). The equivalent of eliminating essentially all members of some academic standing from the  ICHR and leaving its future in the hands of Y.S. Rao (whose very credentials as a historian have been questioned by Ms. Romila Thapar, according to the entry against his name in the Wikipedia) in a move that hints at a possible further attempt at saffronisation of our history.

Let us pass now to what the creme de la creme of scientific establishments have been facing in the last few months:

The Committee given the task of identifying the next Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was led by Prof. C.N.R. Rao, probably THE avowedly most highly regarded scientist by past governments which even bestowed the Bharat Ratna on him. Anyway, this committee had suggested that the position be filled by a respected physicist working at the institute. This Prof. Sandip Trivedi,  had had the sense to initially not be intersted in accepting such administrative responsibility which would leave him precious little time for doing physics; but he gave in, after allowing himself to be convinced by Prof. C.N.R. Rao's committee that the institute badly needed a man like him at the helm of affairs. Not too much later, the PMO issues a statement that `owing to the post not having been properly advertised', Prof. Trivedi was being stripped of his Directorship. This resulted, not surprisingly, in protests by Prof. Rao, that he had been selected as he was considered the best candidate for the position, and that Directorship of the Premiere Research Institution could not be filled in by random people responding to a newspaper advertisement. Several months later, the DAE (the ministry overlooking the running of TIFR) announced that the objections raised earlier to Prof. Trivedi's appointment had been retracted, and the he would be the Director. Interestingly, there has been no announcement yet regarding Prof. Trivedi's reaction to this latest step in the `no you aren't, yes you are' game. (I am earnestly hoping that he would say `Thanks, but no thanks'.)

Then it was the turn of the IIT's. As we all know, while there were initially only five of these institutions in the country, several political parties have been using, as part of their platform, promises to start several new IITs all over the country - Gandhinagar, Hyderabad, Patna, Jodhpur, .... Never mind that it is being found that it is very hard to attract good academics to staff these fast mushrooming institutes with. Not long ago, we witnessed a thtoughly farcical situation where more than 30 people were interviewed on one day to find directors for three of the new IIT's. Dr. Anil Khakodkar  (former Chairman of the DAE, and universally respected) who was on the selection committee for this exercise, just resigned from the committee, refusing to be part of their many ridiculous antics. There were press reports of his not having resigned, as well as stories of his disenchantment with the whole exercise.

Delhi is finding other ways of having its presence felt in academic institutions - as witnessed by the recent (and entirely unnecessary) instance of IIT Madras being pressurised to derecognise a student body which sang the praises of Ambedkar and Periyar, while also, heaven forbid, objecting to Sanskritisation, Hindi name boards in Chennai (a traditional hotbed of resistance to the idea of Hindi as a national language) and caste-related schisms - and all on the basis of an anonymous letter from `some students' asserting that this group was guilty of promoting `hate' speeches; there was such a furious reaction to this, in Chennai, and even from Fields Medallists from Harvard, that this `derecognition was revoked' after a week of undue tension in Chennai.

And now for the latest manifestation of this heavy-handed meddling. When I first got into mathematics, almost 50 years ago, people only spoke of two places in India which did cutting-edge research in mathematics: TIFR and ISI. I have been on the faculty of branches of the Indian Statistical Institute at Delhi and Bangalore for a total of about 12 years, and I have the greatest fondness and loyalty to this institute which has come through many bad patches, but always managing to pick itself up and continue to hold a place of some esteem in the world of mathematics and statistics. I have known nobody who has spent some time associated with ISI who does not have the fondest soft spot in their hearts which prays for the well-being of this remarkable institute, which almost `flourishes in spite of itself'. This whole piece was prompted by the machinations concerning the directorship  of ISI. This is what has happened, and got me - and all well-wishers of ISI - all riled up.

The man who had been holding this post for the last (almost) five years is a Professor Bimal Roy, who took over after the institute had been through a rough patch. By all accounts (from academics whom I have held in generally high regard), the institute was quite happy with his tenure. And so, apparently was the Government, since they awarded a Padma Shri (a presumably coveted honour bestowed by the President of India) to him just a few months back! His tenure was supposed to come to an end on August 1, 2015, and the council had set up a Selection Committee to be entrusted with zeroing in on the choice for next Director. There was a Council meeting when this Committee was to announce its recommended choice of name for next Director. The general feeling doing the rounds was that this choice should/would fall on one of two people, either Professor Roy himself, or a candidate who had rendered yeoman service to the Institute for more than a decade and has moved, not long ago, to a non-ISI institute for personal reasons. Then the bombshell is dropped: the future Director wil be an entirely different candidate (formerly considered an outsider, if that).Usually, the Selection Committee's choice is supposed to be a recommendation for the Council to deliberate upon. This time, however, the Chairman of the Selection Committee and the Chairman of the Council are the same: the former journalist Arun Shourie whose wearing these two caps is, no doubt, a fall-out of his connection with the ruling party. One would have hoped that such critical posts would be reserved for a reputed academician, rather than a politician. Anyway, Mr. Shourie ensures that there will be no conflict of opinions between his two caps by just announcing the Committee's decision and shortly thereafter leaving for his flight out of Kolkata. And now, the powers that be talk of perceived acts of indiscipline on the part of Bimal-da (as he is universally and affectionately called) and have stripped him of his post as Director with immediate effect, making vague charges of financial and administrative irregularities, `lest he indulge in further acts of such indiscipline or mischief'. I would have imagined that you must be well equipped with reams of proof of such misdeeds before you can dare to make such assertions of misconduct; but I suppose it is a function of the ground rules of the game (and who decides these rules)!

Going back to something I have said in an earlier post in this blog, this is exactly the sort of occasion when the Presidents of our Academies of Science should speak in one voice and say enough is enough, you politicians leave science to us scientists and you concentrate on doing your job of governing the land. God knows there are enough problems needing their attention: appalling frequency of rapes; spiralling rate of traffic related deaths; farmer suicides; non-implementation of `laws' like (i) abolition of manual scavenging, (ii) compliance with the UNCRPD; caste-related daily violence, like thrashing a teen-aged girl for daring to have her shadow fall on a high-caste.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Stop me if you have heard this before...

Today witnessed yet another instance of my institute's refreshing habit of bending over backwards to keep supporting me in my attempts at `disability activism'. What brought this on was the fact that the Standing Committee of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment came out just last week with its report to the ministry on its views on the so-called Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2014 after soliciting opinions of `stakeholders'. This report was refreshing in the sensitivity with which it addressed many issues, and had explicitly recommended that the Ministry solicit the aid of various NGOs and stakeholders before finalising the draft of the Bill. And there was a feeling that we, the interested parties, should try to stress this enlightened point of view before the Government officials do something in their often unthinking and high-handed ways. So, rather than the same organisation, DRA, baying like a lone wolf, we thought we should try to make it a `multi-city' venture, by initiating a skype conference soliciting views from `our kind' in Bombay, Hyderabad, Delhi, etc. Since a place with good connectivity was needed for this skype meeting, I asked my Director if we could use a room in the institute and have our systems people to render the needed help, and he promptly agreed. Not long before we were scheduled to meet, one of my friends called and said she was having trouble finding an auto-rickshaw driver who would agree to take her and her wheel-chair. Somewhere from the recesses of my normally leaky memory, I seemed to recall our administrative officer telling me that they had decided to buy a wheel-chair and keep it with the security guards at the gate, for possible use by visitors who might need it! I checked with the security, and sure enough they had it. So I told Smitha if she could just find an auto and come without her wheelchair, my driver Sekar would be there to wheel her to the venue. So, once again, IMSc had demonstrated that it was a haven for wheelchair users!

At the room earmarked for the meeting, both Vasan and Jahir were there in readiness (at 0915 on a Saturday morning!) 45 minutes ahead of the announced starting time for the meeting, to make sure there were no unforeseen glitches. There were some glitches through the meeting, but nothing they could be blamed for. Thus it was that we got started a mere 15 minutes late, and at 10:15, the entire cast of characters had assembled: Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Bhavna Botta, Poonam Natarajan, Beena Prithveeraj, Amba Salelkar, Shankar Subbiah, Rajiv Rajan, Deepak Thirumalai Nathan, Smitha Sathasivam and me from Chennai (seated around an almost Arthurian round table), and from outside Chennai and visible on a screen at one coner of the room were Nidhi Goyal, Nilesh Singit, Jeeja Ghosh, Pavan Muntha, Abha Khetarpal - an altogether respectable and serious right-minded people across India linked by a common desire to ensure that PwD in India get a fair deal.

Not having taken careful notes of the deliberations, I won't go into the details. Suffice it to say that some report with a more accurate account of the recommendations is bound to be prepared soon,  by people better versed in the legal implications of the various clauses and articles in the Bill and the recommendations of the Standing Committee and this will be forwarded to the appropriate officials. And one will sit with fingers crossed and wait for the next development! For what it is worth, my two bits' worth to the deliberations were the following noises regarding `Definitions' (the first two points where I disagree with the recommendations of the Standing Committee, and the subsequent six where I am in complete accord with them, and offer half a suggestion in the last):

1) In item 3.3, using the phrase `Person with Disability' is perfectly OK; using the phrase `differently able' is giving undue importance to the difference. Besides, it is not helping anybody to pretend that I do not have a disability when, in fact, I need a wheelchair to move around because I am not able to walk around on my own two legs! Our PM wears glasses while I do not; does that make him differently able? So let us not play with words and pretend that it is a level playing field!

2) Enlarging the list from 19 to 26 or 27 (in the proposed definition of PwD) will solve no problem; it is just the sort of short-sighted policy-making that suggests that  `urban infrastructural woes can be solved by doubling road widths and the number of cars on the road; and two years  down the line, just repeat the exercise'. The UNCRPD definition of PwD should be adopted, without attempting to quantify or classify disability!

3) In item 3.6,  what is the need to explicitly exclude J&K? It must be changed so as to be truly inclusive!

4) The SC is dead right when they say (in 3.8) that `The Committee are of the unyielding view that the "attitude‟ and "psychology‟ of the people are also major hindrance for full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society.' I am convinced that emoving this clear reference to barriers is a dis-service.

5) The SC should also be lauded for insisting on a clear understanding in 3.11 of what constitutes communication - by recognising sign language as a genuine medium of communication!

6) This broader interpretation of `Establishment' in 3.14  - whereby, even privately owned establishments that are used by the public should be made accessible - is also most refreshing.

7) The definition of public infrastructure in item 3.35 is wonderfully inclusive and should find place in the Bill.

8) Recreation: item 3.99 says: "persons with disabilities to have a cultural life and to participate in recreational activities equally with others..."

Maybe 3.101 could also stipulate - as suggested to the members of the SC  when they came to Chennai, by my colleague Ummul ("I also love the smells and sounds of the sea, but am unable to get anywhere near it!") - that "Public places like parks and beaches should be made accessible - including tactile paths, wheel-chair friendly paths, disabled friendly toilets".

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Together we can

I am afraid I am going to do some `blowing my own trumpet', but all in a good cause, as I hope to try and convince you of. I want to talk of the saga, which began many years ago and is an ongoing one, of (i) my convincing the directors of my institute to render our institute accessible for wheel-chair users, and (ii) getting them to let us use the institute infrastructure to conduct even non-scientific events where many such people with disabilities might be expected to participate.

It helped that I was a senior Professor, faily deeply entrnched here when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and that the then Director was a fellow mathematician (Balu) whose usual reaction to suggestions was `why not' and not `why' - besides being a colleague of many years' standing with whom one could be casual and `take liberties with'. So I could say `if you want me to teach, you should make it possible for me to get to the classroom' and thus began a long series of `demands' for enabling me to be functional and contribute my academic mite to the institute. And I started publicising (for instance, see my post in this blog) to the world how Balu's sensitivity (I'd like to think `sense', instead) was slowly transforming this campus to a heaven on earth for a wheel-chair user. At one point, when there was pressure from his Governmental funding bosses to have Hindi classes for every one, I got away with the argument that we should also have Indian sign language classes so people could help a potential visitor or student with hearing impairment! Although he gave in, I could see that one should not push a good thing too far by making abstract demands, rather than practical ones which I could benefit from. I am sure that if there had been a member of the institute with vision impairment, we could have insisted on - and implemented - adequate braille signage and tactile tiling. Many were the cases where the registrar Vishnu Prasad took an active lead, such as (i) the acquisition of a device which would enable a person on a wheelchair to get on to the dais in our auditorium, (ii) when a disabled-friendly toilet was finally built in our institute, (iii) a spacious elevator materialised in our guest house, with recorded announcements at each halt of the elevator, (iv) designing of additions to the guest house/hostel with some awareness of universal design, ... Ultimate proof that this sensitivity had penetrated quite deep came when we were all being shown around a new wing that had been added, after it had been formally been opened with cutting of ribbons by the Chairman of our academic council. I had not seen this wing from up close till then since it had been quite inaccessible when the construction was ongoing. At the start of the tour, we had been shown the rather well-designed and spacious toilet discussed in (ii) above. Halfway down the corridor, there were a couple of toilets which could only be accessed after climbing down a step. The Chairman swung around on me and said Sunder, how could you allow Balu to get away with this?

Anyway my point is that once all this had been achieved, it was not very difficult to convince Balu to let me organise events like MS day at IMSc. I could see even the administration getting into the right mind-set and often even making suggestions for ways of rendering hitherto inaccessible places accessible. After that long preamble, let me get to the point of this post. Some days back, I received a request from my friend (and one of the live-wires of DRA) Vaishnavi to `like' her new page `Togetherecan' on Facebook. I promptly did the effortless `token like', but then got to thinking how IMSc has been an outstanding example of this `Together we can' ideology. When people have an open mind and a willingness to include everybody in the very act of living and working together, there is really no limit to what we can achieve together. I'll conclude with the latest instance of such sensitivity.

Balu's term as director has come to an end and a younger and equally sensitive and unassuming colleague (this time, a theoetical computer scientist called Arvind) is now `acting director' until the powers that be formally anoint the next director. (If they had any sense, they would not look any further, as I'll try and convince you.) A few weeks ago, Meenakshi, another friend of mine (and comrade in DRA (our so-called `Disability Rights Alliance') who runs an NGO called Equals, wrote to me saying We are planning to host a series of Lectures on various social issues for persons with disabilities. The lectures are planned on the second Saturday from 10 am to 12.30 pm every month. We envisage that these lectures will act as a link between the disability movement and other social movements. All social issues impact persons with disability on an equal basis with others. It is also important that the key players in other social movements understand the issues of persons with disabilities and so their demands will also be responsive to the issues that confront persons with disabilities. And she went on to say It will be extremely useful if the Institute of Mathematical Sciences supports us by providing us a lecture hall with an LCD projector, that can hold a maximum of 35 to 40 people. The primary objective of choosing the Institute is due to its infrastructural accessibility for use by persons with disability. Arvind promptly replied that we may have a certain hall (123) for the date of the first meeting, when Amba, yet another female DRA comrade, who is quite a bit of a legal beagle educated us on `sexual harrassment in the work-place'.

Then Meanakshi asked me `what about the venue for subsequent meetings'. So I pointed out to Arvind that he had not read the entire letter from Meenakshi, where she had requested the facility for the same time on the second saturday of each month. He replied that the administration had indicated that this every month requirement  might impose constraints for the support staff as many events - sometimes as many as three (as on the day of Amba's lecture) - were held during week-ends; so he said `can't you guys spread this over some other institutes as well?' And I told him that at the last meeting when Amba spoke, there were more than ten people on wheelchairs in the audience, and that NO institute in India (other than those that had been specifically designed for people with disabilities) was accessible for such an audience. I also pointed that all we were asking for was a lecture hall with projection facilities, without any frills like coffee/snacks/lunch, etc. and that literally no demands were being made of the institute other than hall, computer and screen. Arvind's immediate reaction was: `I had not realised all this; I'll talk to the office and get back to you'. Sure enough, within the hour, there was an email from him, addressed to me and relevant members of the administration, saying: Approval is accorded for using Hall 123 with Projector Facilities on all second Saturday (May 2015 - March 2016) from 10.00 am to 12.30 pm. It may be noted that Prof. Sunder has agreed that this event may be cancelled if some academic event at the Institute requires the use of Hall 123 on a 2nd Saturday - Arvind

So I repeat: the bottom line is Together we can! All it requires is some sensitivity and desire for including people of all sorts!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Inanity and cluelessness on the meaning of sensitivity

Last night, I received a phone call from my cousin (who has been a frequent reader of my blog) and she told me there was something on TV about persons with disabilities, and that I might want to see it. When she told me it was on NDTV, I should have wondered if it would be worth dropping the proof-reading marathon I need to finish within the next week or so - but some people need to be told the same revolting thing ad nauseum before it gets past their thick cranium.

The `something on TV' had a bright title like `it's your choice' and was a grotesque parody, presented by Prannoy Roy, of a show called `Just for Laughs'. In the Hollywood slapstick version, a typical example would feature, for example, a traffic cop stopping somebody for a (falsely) alleged `parking violation' and falling asleep every few seconds during the process of giving the ticket for the violation; and after the motorist got increasingly visibly irritated, somebody would point out the camera getting all this down for a future episode for the show. That is harmless fun.

But what Prannoy Roy doled out made you want to rush out and throw up. The aim of the show was to apparently convince the viewer that the populace of our cities like Delhi and Kolkata are sensitive about the needs of the disabled, and speak up when they perceive insensitivity in this regard, and to exhort the viewer to similarly speak up when observing anything that is not quite right. There were a series of `episodes of the following genre:

A person with cerebral palsy and his fiancee are seated at a restaurant in Delhi, when a party of two young men and a woman come to occupy a nearby table. Soon we hear the woman from the trio say `This is disgusting; why do they allow such people to come out, and to places like this'. She and her companions keep making remarks at least as noxious - and do so loudly enough to have their views heard by anybody within twenty feet. The camera then  pans on the faces of some of the other clientele, who look inceasingly disgusted, until some of them walk up to inform the trio of some home truths such as `they are also people after all', and `imagine if you had a brother like that'. After such scintillating conversation drags on more than long enough - `show some sympathy' - `but it's so disgusting-ya' - back and forth between the good guys and the bad, and more people join the ranks of the good guys, out walks the cameramen and a disembodied voice in the background (guess whose) reveals the truth that the trio as well as some of the `good guys' who initially rose to the defense of the `almost people' were employees of NDTV, and asks the viewer to revel in the manner in which the other good people of Delhi spoke out their minds, thus displaying that Delhi stood up for its disabled people. (sic).

Revolting as this was to watch, the first episode I saw was what really got my goat. For this episode, NDTV had got Abha Khetarpal, a well-known spokesperson for the need for inclusivity, barrier-free environments, ...., to agree to act as the person manning the counter of a large supermarket-style store, where bills are rung up. In this episode, an abrasive man, whom everybody waould love to see fall down and break his teeth, walks up and demands that Abha finish her task quickly, `as his car is waiting'. After  he makes enough impatient and insensitive statements, two nearby customers (whose mounting displeasure the cameras have been hopping back and forth to show) come up to Abha's defense, to be soon joined by other good samaritans, before it is time for the cameramen to appear and the same old sermon dished out to the hapless viewer.

For crying out loud, you don't have to show a blind person being bashed about before realising that they are also people, and that we should strive for an inclusive society. What really annoyed me was the trivialising of Abha to nothing but a `poor wheelchair-user to be pitied', never mind the fact that here was an accomplished (see my post in this blog) woman who has more to her than being a subject to be tragically stereotyped. I would have been more appreciative of NDTV's (token) sensitivity towards people with disability, if there had been a series of episodes on the sort of handicaps overcome by determined achievers among people with disabilities (like Abha Khetarpal, Shivani Gupta, Hema Iyengar, Rajiv Rajan, ...) and give sermons asking people to (i) not park their cars and bikes on pavements, or (ii) not to arrange `functions' in buildings without ramps where you invite wheel-chair users to `receive an award' after somehow having had navigate flights of steps! Get real, Prannoy, if you really want to sensitise your viewing public (rather than gain cheap `brownie points' for NDTV), then talk to people like Vaishnavi Jayakumar (co-founder of the Banyan) who can instantly reel off half a dozen more meaningful scenarios to use your expensive cameras for.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Inclusivity - thy name is not India

Other countries are more subtle about keeping out people with locomotor disabilities. They make sure there are no ramps and a flight of steps is the only way to get in; so if you are on a wheel-chair, tough luck! Here, though, there are places where ramps are provided, but at ridiculous gradients. (If there are ten steps, just knock off a small portion width-wise and make that part into a ramp.) Even with my power-driven wheel-chair, I can't dream of making it; the users of manual wheel-chairs can just forget about it. But India is a league apart. We Indians with disabilities can proudly lay claim to having faced the following forms of discrimination:

  1. The government, in its hurry to rush through a `Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill' which was riddled with flaws and violations of the UNCRPD, initiates a `lathi-charge' on a group of blind people who were peacefully protesting the attempts to pass the bill in a hurry. 
  2. Pilots of private airlines did not want to take an unescorted passenger with cerebral palsy, never mind that she was going to lecture at a conference she had been invited to. (See here.).
  3. Night-clubs in Mumbai blatantly keeps out a disabled person (See here.)
  4. Restaurants in Delhi deny entry of a guest in a wheelchair, even using some force to stop him from trying to enter the place (See here.).

Let us see how the authorities have reacted to these acts of brazen discrimination:

  1. The police reaction is best described  here and here 
  2.  "I have taken suo moto cognisance of the matter and issued notices to Spicejet and DGCA directing them to explain within 30 days as to what action they have taken to compensate Jeeja Ghosh (the victim) and also to prevent recurrence of such incidents," said Chief Disabilities Commissioner PK Pincha. See here
  3. The DNA of 17/01/14 says this about the incident: Legal experts have opined that the club administration had committed a blunder  by denying entry to Chandran. Advocate Jamshed Mistry said, “A night club is supposed to be a public place for  amusement. There is no question of stopping someone on the ground  of being on a wheelchair. When his (Chandran) friends had booked a table and had paid for  his entry, then the club had no rights to stop him. It was wrong on the part of the staff  to suggest that they lift him. If Chandran wants, he can lodge a complaint with the office  of the chief commissioner for persons with disabilities against the discrimination  meted out to him.” 
  4. Govt. of Delhi has found Keya, DLF Promenade, guilty of Disability Discrimination in its inquiry! See here.

As Stevie Wonder says in one of his militant songs You haven't done nothing!

Some of my activist friends on Facebook wanted to know what matter of penalty should be meted out to Keya and such offenders. Here are some suggestions that could go a long way in sensitising people towards PWD:

  • Have their entire establishment undergo an audit by access specialists such as Shivani Gupta and Anjlee Agarwal.
  • Ensure that they hire a minimum number of PWD on a regular basis
  • Have their front-office staff undergo a sensitisation programme

And finally, as access specialists like Shivani and Anjlee are too few and far between, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment should arrange for such experts to help design and conduct sessions where architects and others could be trained into transforming exclusive environments into inclusive ones based on principles of universal design, who in turn could educate others and start on the arduous journey towards making ours a barrier-free and inclusive environment that does not disable people.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Just as if we had never done this before

For several months now, members of my group have been asked to perform audits of the `model roads' where the Chennai Corporation has been trying to render the pavements usable fo pedestrians: Loyola College Road, Besant Nagar 2nd Main Road, Conran Smith Road, Police Commissioner's Office Road, Pantheon Road, SIET College Road, ... Of late, we have been concentrating on this last road, officially called K.B. Dasan Road. We had a big slogan-shouting and human chain event on it on December 3rd, the World Disabled Day. And we told people there we will come again periodically, especially including the 3rd of the next month, etc., to see if all our `sensitising` exercises had borne any fruit at all.

We went there again last week-end, armed with our hand-outs, drafts of model signs indicating that vehicles parked on the pavements would be towed away, etc., people from the Corporation Office located on that road itself and traffic police with loudspeakers trying to announce that pavements are meant for pedestrians and should be cleared. We had even informed friends in the Press so that our efforts would be publicised. And indeed our Press friends did not disappoint, as evidenced by this report next morning in `The Hindu'.

But there the good news ended. The pavements looked exactly the same as they had on December 2nd. Here is a quick run-through of some photographs documenting our experience that morning. As we started moving east from the SIET College gate, we ran into Domino's Pizza with its fleet of two-wheelers blocking the pavement.

And poor Smitha couldn't even get past these mopeds by getting down to the road, risking life and limb at the possible harm from speeding vehicles whizzing by; reason: the omnipresent two-wheeler parked in the way by  yet another inconsiderate driver whose mind must be where the `sun don't shine'.

 By now, about 150 minutes past the time we had agreed on meeting, some traffic police had come and we asked them to follow or come along with us so they could see our problems. The first one was caused by the wiring for the lamp-posts in a bright orange plastic tube that uncompromisingly guarded the pavement.

Then there was this example

to show that there could also be drivers of four-wheelers and bicycles with their minds up in that same dark place. And given the various marginalised sections of Indian cities, there are many who have to set up shop

on the pavements simply because they have very little option.

But where I draw a line is at the not quite-so-marginalised using the pavements as extensions

of their parking lots or show-windows. I will be glad to offer 10 to 1 odds on this being exactly the same scenario you will find a week later at this Ford Service Station or at the Sangeetha restaurant on the opposite side of the road which I did not have the cool to photograph because I was so mad at the attitude of the owners of cars and two-wheelers which were cavalierly parked infront of the restaurant and too intent on giving them a piece of my mind. Nor is it much more comforting when a hospital, which should be concerned with such things as being able to move patients in stretchers or wheelchairs, exhibits this behaviour at which all poor Smitha can do is scratch her head in despair:

Never mind, next month, I'll get enough photographs - including Sangeetha, for sure - and then present our case to the traffic police. I am convinced that with our total lack of civic sense, nothing will change unless people are threatened by police levying hefty fines or towing away their vehicles. With high probability, these same cars and two-wheelers will be continuing in their merry antisocial ways, blocking these same spots!