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.