Sunday, 27 November 2016

Old habits die hard!

This post is based on two things: Firstly, I heard a fantastic speech by Haben Girma yesterday and one of the lines she used should be taken to heart by well-meaning people who do not wish to sound insensitive or  politically incorrect: `Don't describe me or my talk as inspirational'. The offending adjective is frequently used for a person who is an achiever and has some manner of disability. The entire sentence `you are inspiring/inpirational' reeks of condescension in this context, conveying the impression that you must be inspired/have divine powers/ be a divyangjan in order to be able to achieve anything if you have a disability. Secondly, the first question tossed to Haben by a member the audience was `You say technology should come to the aid of enabling such people to contribute to society; on the other hand, India is a poor country; how does one reconcile these two problems?'. This question came from a former colleague at the institute where the talk was given, and many is the argument we have had over the years on different points of view; and it is time to cross swords again! Haben hit the nail on the head when she answered him with `it is just a matter of attitude; it only requires a willingness to recognise and solve the issues'.

To resume my squabbling with my ex-colleague, I will say `our poor India has money to build four lane highways all across our land, cut all the trees to build monumental flyovers and gift her cities to such of her poor citizens as can drive their gas-guzzlers and create pollution to the alarming levels that Delhi witnessed recently'. This idiotically short-sighted belief of our city-planners that building wider and more roads will solve all our problems, is an abhorrent gift to the world by America that never fails to get my goat.

The question I am ranting about amounts to this: should we continuously build all these roads which make it impossible for a wheelchair user, even a pedestrian, to step out of his home (unless he himself has a car), at a cost which is of a much greater order of magnitude than that of making information technology and our buildings accessible to people (with or without disabilities/wheelchair-using/sick /elderly)? In an earlier argument with this colleague I had dismissed some statement as bulls..t, and he publicly chastised me for using `barnyard epithets'. Seriously, asking Haben the question he did merits a repeat usage of such epithets, because they are the mots justes in this case.

This lecture of Haben's was recorded and a link to that video is

Thursday, 17 November 2016

East is east and west is west, but their DRAs can - and will - meet

DRA, the group of Disability Rights Activists that I try to get together with on some of their jousts against our barrier-full environment, has many remarkable individuals in it, some, but not all of whom I have written about elsewhere in this blog. I intend to start correcting these omissions by devoting this post to Bhavna, a young woman with remarkable tenacity and positivity. She carries the burden of complications that comes with being a victim of cerebral palsy. And in her case, this is extrmely limiting. She cannot speak, and she needs the constant assistance of a caregiver - to push her in her wheelchair, clean her up when her condition causes her to drool, etc., etc.

Drooling is generally regarded as uncool, maybe even eliciting a `yecch' from the `beautiful people'. The evident distaste in others' faces is not too easy to stomach by one who has no control over this physiological problem, especially when the offender of high society behaviour standards is sensitive and perceptive. `Normal' people should include this observation in their book of etiquette rules as a step towards inclusivity. A little thought would reveal that nobody would deliberately drool!

In a similar situation, 9 of 10 people would just give up and live a life of dependence with little self-esteem. But not Bhavna. She does it by pointing with her eyes which are fortunately unaffected. A chart with letters as well as commonly used words is placed before her, and she points with her eyes and her mother (or other people, like Meenakshi, another member of DRA, who have subsequently learnt this art not unlike a game of charade) guesses what she is trying to say till she signals assent. By such a tortuous process, she communicates with the world; and with sufficient mastery to have earned a Bachelor's degree in Commerce and to run a boutique. (See

Recently, she started a magazine called Connect Special which, among other things, covered some innovative methods she had devised to sensitise the lay public regarding the need for, and advantages of, society learning to adopt inclusive attitudes and designs to enable people with disabilities to participate meaningfuly in society. These methods included getting people to gather on the Bessie Beach Road, which is closed to traffic on Sundays during 0630-0900, and participate in assorted activities designed to create awareness of PwD and their problems with all manners of barriers - physical, attitudinal, ... - that society throws at them.

On one of those weekends, when I had managed to cajole my driver to take me out there early on a Sunday morning rather than play with his daughter not yet a year old, a middle aged gentleman came up to me and told me he had come all the way from a far-flung suburb of Chennai because he was Bhavna's No. 1 fan. He diffidently asked me if I knew of Haben Girma. When I pleaded ignorance, he asked me to look her up on the net, and to make it a point to convince Bhavna  to make contact with her during her proposed trip to Bangalore in November. So I did look up Haben Girma on Google and understood what Martin was talking about.

If you didn't know about her, I should let you see for yourself (for instance, at how this deafblind young woman's mother managed to take her and her (also deaf blind) younger brother from Eritrea to Syria, thence to America where she became the first deafblind graduate of Harvard's law school and proceeded to be one of the more accomplished members of the  Disability Rights Advocates at Berkeley. Among the feathers in her cap is a visit to the White House at the behest of then President Obama.

So I sent an email encouraging Bhavna to write to Haben explaining her own involvement with the DRA in Chennai (the only variation being that the A of our DRA stands for Alliance) and inviting her to visit Chennai for a couple of days. (You never know when a highly connected friend might not be just what is needed!) And thus it came to pass that Haben Girma is visiting Chennai during November 26-28 and will be lecturing in IMSc Chennai (at 1700 hrs on the 26th on Equal Access for an Inclusive and Progressive Society) and at IIT Madras (on Access in Education at 1630 hrs on the 28th in CLT) and that I walk around with a glow of contentment at how Martin and I helped orchestrate the meeting of the shining lights of the DRAs in Chennai and Berkeley!

The mind boggles at the technological problems of Bhavna and Haben communicating with one another. But you know what! Only a fool will doubt their ability to have a long and meaningful conversation with results that would greatly enhance the move to empower people with disabilities.

(Let me end with the qualifier that all the credit for this meeting, planning for Haben's visit to Chennai, goes to Bhavna and Vidya Sagar; I am merely basking in the glow of expectation of this wonderful upcoming event. I am not claiming any credit other than telling Bhavna there was no harm trying. Haben responded positively to her less than 48 hours after my suggestion!)