Saturday, 31 May 2014

We need your help, Mr. Modi

This is in the manner of an open letter to Mr. Modi who has swept into power with such impressive support that it appears tht he can do anything he wishes. Sir, I hope to convince you of the desirability of implementing many of my fond hopes, which I have been repeatedly presenting to Government officials in the past, with precious little to show for it.

Basically I want persons with disabilities (PWD, henceforth) to be given a chance to contribute what they can to society, with independence and dignity. For example, I can basically go nowhere without a wheelchair, but I have been blessed to work in an institute with a remarkably sensitive administration which has seen the value of rendering itself accessible to my wheelchair, so I can continue to contribute as effectively as I did before having become a victim of multiple sclerosis; my work has been recognised by such national awards as the S.S. Bhatnagar Award for Mathematics, and Fellowship of all three national science academies. I am saying this just to make the point that surely there are many more people like me.

I wish to appeal to you as someone with the economic sense of not confining 5% of our people to their homes just because of their misfortune in being disabled. Please recognise that it is our environment which disables them.  As against the dubious figure (even less than 3%)  given by the latest census exercise of our country, quite a bit more than 5% of our citizens are sure to have some manner of disability. Surely such a large number of people must contain a non-trivial collection of people who can and will contribute significantly to the growth/betterment of our country if they were not constrained by a society riddled with hurdles and barriers to their being able to even get out of their homes. For this to happen, certain steps must be taken:
  1. Buses, trains, metros, planes,..., in short, all forms of public transportation must be modified/re-designed so that a PWD can participate fully in all facets of life, effectively, independently, and be able to lead a fruitful life in dignity just like any other citizen.
  2. All buildings/utilities must be forced to be barrier-free and inclusive for ALL people; this means (i) where there are steps, there should also be ramps whose gradients are not so steep as to be unusable by a person on a wheelchair; (ii) all ramps and steps must be equipped with handrails, preferably on both sides; (iii) there must be elevators in buidings which have more than just the ground floor; (iv) there must be signs in braille; (v) all buses/trains/elevators should have announcements so the visibly impaired know when a certain stop/floor has been reached.
  3. People must be sensitised to observe rules such as stopping at red lights, and being a little more considerate towards PWD in small but important ways, such as: (i) buses should stop only at bus stops, and NOT for only a few seconds some 50 ft. past the bus stop, (ii) rather than rushing to be first and pushing all else out of the way, wait and give priority to the aged, the infirm,  children and PWD.
  4. Please do not give away our country to the automobile user; stop the current tendency to have long stretches of divided highway which are impossible to cross by one on foot or in a wheelchair. Stop our tendency to design cities where growth or improvement is measured only by miles of roads built, with no consideration of the number of fatal accidents. (A majority of the fatalities are pedestrians, largely elderly and infirm - not to mention poor people sleeping on the pavements who are run over by rich people diving their fancy cars in a state of inebriation.)
  5. Finally, please ensure passage in Parliament of a suitably re-drafted version of a `Rights for Persons with Disbilities Bill' that was sent to a Standing Committee after the last Government was stalled in its efforts to hurriedly pass it in February by a Congress Party in its dying days. This `stalling' was a result of many right thinking people who used whatever means were available - including sympathetic support from such people as Arun Jaitley (BJP), Kanimozhi (DMK) and Sitaram Yechury (CPI(M)). Please do not make the mistake made by the UPA of only consulting one or two disability activists in Delhi, who do not necessarily always see things the same way as others in the field (from all over India) do!

Please use the power given to you, with great hopes, by a large number of people, to progress in the direction that would be lauded by arguably the greatest Indian from Gujarat, namely the Mahatma fondly called the Father of the Nation.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

World MS Day

The reason I am putting up this post now is the slight goof in the way my blog now appears, resulting from my clumsy fingers. Let me try to explain away the complicated previous sentence. It turns out that next wednesday is world MS Day, and the the secretary of local (Chennai, India) chapter of the MS Society of India told me that as Accessibility is the theme for the day, and as my institute is one of the most accessible places she has seen, she asked me if we could conduct the festivities at my institute. She told me that the press would be well represented, and I could try to sell the idea to my director as a way to get free publicity for the institute. I told her that he would let us have the do at IMSc without having to be sold the advertisement angle; it is the inclusivity of his thinking that has allowed me to get the institute to systematically make this entire campus accessible to me on my wheelchair. And I was right: as soon as I asked if we could use the premises for the meeting that day, he came out with his stock answer `take it ya'. And Ann (the secretary of MSSI, Chennai) has prepared a programme for the involving short talks by some seven people on different aspects of accessibility, such as rehabilitation, employment, education, transport, sports for the disabled and welfare schemes). And I have been asked to talk about education. The only thing I can talk about is on my attempts to talk to the powers that be at various institutes and universities that I get invited to talk at - all of which has been faithfully chronicled in this blog - and of the spectacular success my efforts have been met with at my own institute (see the post And as I was trying to get links to various pieces that are related to this effort of mine, an old post from some two years ago somehow hopped to top of the line; and this mini-post is by way of explaining this strange phenomenon to a possibly puzzled follower of my blog!

Ingenuity revisited

Times of India, September 1, 2012

Some time ago, I had written in this column about a stroke of monstrous ingenuity that I had witnessed in the faculty housing at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai - that of having elevators halt halfway between floors, by which amazing stroke of economy, it was ensured that you have to climb up or down half a flight of stairs if ever you take the elevator - God help you if you are wheelchair-bound. This ingenuity of fundamental research was to return to dog me recently in the distant North-East.

In response to a plea from a University there to come and help with `Curriculum Development of their Mathematics Department', I sent my stock response that owing to my mobility problems, I could come only if:

  1. I would be driven from the nearest airport to the place where I would be accommodated; and
  2. it was ensured that in view of my mobility constraints, the venues of my accommodation as well as of the office where I would need to work were both totally accessible to my wheelchair.

Back came the instant response that all my worries were noted and best efforts were being taken to ensure my comfortable stay. Lured by the prospect of escaping from Chennai in May to the heavenly climes (at least 30 degrees cooler) of the beautiful north-east, with a possible view of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga, I agreed to go.

My hosts had thoughtfully sent a large SUV which would comfort- ably transport my motorised wheelchair (which I had carted through the airports with some amount of difficulty), my wife, our baggage and me - thereby satisfying my first condition. As for the second, I had been warned that I would need to negotiate a couple of steps at the entrance of the guest house, after which, however, I would have no problems. After negotiating the two steps at the entrance, I entered the guest house to renew my acquaintance with the horror of the half-landing elevator.

My room was next door to and on the same floor as the room where our meetings were to be held; while the dining room was one floor higher. My hosts kindly offered us the option of having our food brought to our room. We did avail this option a few times, but as all the others were eating in the dining hall, it seemed only civil to go up for at least a few meals.

At the end of a gruelingly long day of going over syllabi of courses, we were told that the Vice-Chancellor had invited all the external experts with our families to dinner - which we later discovered was to be at floor -3 in a hotel without an elevator, so it was back to our room for dinner. The next night, we were told that dinner would be slightly delayed - to 9 pm - as the VC was going to join all of us for dinner. With my wife insisting that surely his coming must be related to remorse at my inability to attend the previous evening's dinner, it was time to again hobble down half a flight of stairs then up a floor in the elevator and hobble down another half-flight to get to the dining room. After spending about ninety minutes chatting with the others, we were told that the VC would not be coming after all!

Although I had spent 48 hours in the beautiful North-East without once having stepped out of my maximally inaccessible guest- house, I had the satisfaction of at least having had a spectacular view of Kanchenjunga from the terrace of our guest house, and I achieved my primary purpose in undertaking the gruelling trip, which was to see a friend of mine in Kolkata who was not in the best of health! But the (invisible) VC had his own back by calling my bluff about being constrained to a wheel-chair by making me hobble up and down those stairs a fair number of times, thanks to the fundamental brilliance of his elevator.

In conclusion, I wish to assure my hosts that I do appreciate their sincere attempts to make my stay comfortable, but I also wish to stress that if I had indeed been wheelchair-bound then this trip would have been an unalloyed nightmare!

Saturday, 3 May 2014


As the `raven quoth' in Edgar Allen Poe's play, it is hightime that all PWD take a consolidated stand to NEVER attend an event where some organisation (typically a government agency) offers to `honour' one, and then goes on to organise the event in an auditorium which is replete with an abundant supply of steps, with not even an apology of a ramp - in spite of being fully aware that the recipient of this `award' is confined to a wheelchair - and turn this `honor' into a thoroughly dishonourable event where the honouree is asked to either (i) leave the wheel-chair outside and walk `only 20 steps' (sic), or (ii) if the person just cannot walk, carried up like a sack of potatoes. As readers of my blog or newspaper articles know, I have, by now, become a master at disbelieving promises to take good care of you and make my numerous demands clear to my potential host, and then making as public a stink as possible, if my demands have not been met in spite of promising me that they will.

The latest victim of this kind of horrific insensitivity is Abha Khetarpal, who has been an e-friend for long. Here is the background. Abha is in a wheelchair and was one of four women featured in a documentary  movie `Accsex' that boldly tackled the theme of sexuality and people with disabilities. This movie was going to be honoured at the National Film Award Ceremony at Vigyan Bhawan by the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee. Abha had been excited for some days about being invited to this event, only to be treated to the usual insensitivity of the officials when such a dignitary is going to be present. These auditoria are crammed full of chairs and the only way a wheel-chair can be accommodated in such a place is in an aisle or right up front in front of the first row - and surely national security considerations could not permit such a potential hazard.

The only thing that will work is for ALL of us to say: if you want us at an event, then hold it where we can come; if you can't do that, you can shove your award where the sun don't shine'.