Sunday, 14 September 2014

To tip or not to tip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Fingers Crossed

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

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

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

Monday, 4 August 2014

Smart designers could think universal

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 July 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Monday, 14 July 2014

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

I am getting sick of the monotonous regularity with which our airlines continue to discriminate against PWD because they strike the aireline authorirties as being potential security hazards (sic) to other passengers. The latest such manifestation of such insensitivity was when a woman was not allowed to board a flight with her autistic son who was perceived a such a hazard. See for the gory details. Unlike the opinion apparently expressed, according to the above report, by Mr. Javed Abidi - almost universally perceived by the Indian Press and powers-that-be in Delhi as the spokesman of PWDs in India -  I am not at all surprised by this incident. I do not forget what Jeeja Ghosh underwent. And she is far from being a unique victim of such blatant travesty of justice

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

Thursday, 3 July 2014


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

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

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

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

Bikes claiming the pavements back!

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

The inevitable step, without even an apology for a ramp

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

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

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

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

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

Where does one walk? 

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