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 by 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 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 <>
   - 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 Pofessor 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 facukty 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!