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!

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