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

Equals?


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 http://www.deccanherald.com/content/418968/no-air-travel-mentally-challenged.html 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: http://dgca.nic.in/misc/draft%20cars/D3M-M1_Draft_July2013_.pdf . 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

Never-ever-more

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:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10203983299480770&set=pcb.10203983336001683&type=1&theater

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!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Please keep my money, Mr. Banker!


I was at a meeting yesterday with some friends from our `Disability Rights Alliance' , the aim of the meeting being to try and draw up a list of some `reasonable, minimal and non-negotiable' requirements to be put up by two of us who will be going to Delhi this week-end to be part of a `consultation with the powers that be' - with our `begging bowl' to say `pretty please, would you be so kind as to satisfy these greedy wants of ours'.

The reader should know the background, where many perfectly intelligent and capable people are being denied, only because they have cerebral palsy or some psycho-social disorder, the right to own and maintain a bank account! Here is my bid to itemise some of these demands. You would think any self-respecting democratically run country - leave alone the largest one in the world - would consider these to be self-evident necessities!

A note on some acronyms used: (i) PWD = person(s) with disability; (ii) P without D = the other kind, for whom the banks seem to work!)

  1. All banks should, when necessary, accept a thumbprint of a person in lieu of a signature. (If this can be done for any one human being (e.g., illiterate, or aged and unable to sign), there can be no justification for not doing this for every person – with or without disability. Any bank that does so should be liable to a fine/penalty, and should recompense the person so discriminated against.
  2. All bank personnel should undergo a course of sensitisation where they learn the do's and don't's of dealing with PWD.
  3. Every bank shall have an accessibility officer to identify potential problems of, maintain statistics regarding, and facilitate communication with and transactions by persons with disabilities.
  4. ATMs should be usable by people with all manners of disability (be it visibility, auditory, speech or locomotor impairments). A third of the branches of each bank in each town should have a drive-in ATM.
  5. In cases where some PWD are constrained to have an account jointly with a guardian, all transactions in that account must be immediately intimated to both account holders.
  6. Appropriate safe-guards must be built into the mechanisms by which guardians are assigned to PWD who may be deemed to need them.
  7. Banks should initiate drives to get PWD among their clientele, maintain statistics of the PWD among their clientele, and disincntives should be in place to discourage banks where the percentage of PWD among all clients varies from the mean beyond statistically acceptable standards.
  8. ATMs should not ask clients for their phone numbers (simply because they may not have one or be deaf!) It should be possible to operate an ATM purely on the basis of the thumb-prints of the user.
  9. Any Bank refusing to let a PWD open an account must be severely and sternly reprimanded by the RBI and appropriate penalty should be levied. The same holds for any bank found using different criteria for the same service to PWD and P without D.
  10. A master circular laying out all these considerations concerning PWD should be distributed and prominently displayed in all Banks.
  11. The absurd practise of people with certain kinds of disability needing to obtain a certificate that `they do not need a guardian' should immediately be done away with. Unlike other citizens of the land, are PWD guilty until proven innocent?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Dear Mr. President, please do not make vacuous statements


Our politicins are masters of giving speeches where they seem to promise all
sorts of good things, when in fact they have carefully chosen their words so
they cannot later be faulted for not having fulfilled their promise.

Our president, in a recent address, mentioned `specially abled' people for
the first time. Great progress, you would think; but sift through his three
sentences with a toothcomb:

The welfare and rehabilitation of specially - abled people is integral to my government's vision of a caring society.

Hold your horses, Pranab-da! I need no rehabilitation from you or anybody. I don't want your caring society's offer to carry me up three steps when you have not had the forethought to instal a ramp when you have steps. I do not need your sympathy and caring; I want to be able to participate in any walk of life that you are able to.

It will take steps to provide dignity of life to them by facilitating their participation in all walks of life. 

Mention ten, or even just three, specific steps your government will take to `provide dignity of life' to me. Will you make it possible for me to get out of my house on my wheelchair, get down from the pavement to the road, and cross the road? Will you make it possible for me to take a bus or train or metro? Will you make it possible for me to exercise my franchise at the next elections? And will I be able to do all these three things by myslf without having to have somebody to help me achieve each of these mind-boggling and death-defying feats?

Steps will be taken to identify their special needs and to provide institutional care to them.

And what is this new terminology `special needs'? You and our prime minister need spectacles to read anything, while I do not need any such aids to read. I need a wheelchair to move around while you are able to walk. Is your need special or is mine special? Maybe one is `more special' than the other? I notice you are planning to have special institutions to dish out the special needs for the specially abled. I just hope these are not the kind of institution where people with certain kinds of special needs are kept tied up in chains and possibly get charred to death when thee is a fire in their `special institution'.

India is supposd to be a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. (Please note the internationally accepted terminology: I am not a disabled person, just a person with disability who is rendered disabled by an unfriendly environment riddled with barriers!) When we became signatories to the UNCRPD, we promised to `take steps' to ensure a barrier-free environment and inclusive society; the only steps I can see are more buildings with steps but no ramps!

So please make measurable promises and live up to them - and do not dish out this vague nonsense which still reeks of the old `charity model of disability' rather than the one that empowers people with disability to lead useful lives in dignity!