Sunday, 22 May 2016

Don't get a plumber for a doctor's job

I don't know what it is but so many people are utterly incapable of understanding what it means to say that some place is accessible to a wheelchair - as I have repeatedly found, to my dismay and eventual discomfort. This post is a sort of excuse/explanation to many of my friends/colleagues in the Disbility Rights Alliance (or DRA, as it is better known) as to why I have almost studiously been a non-participant in their efforts to make the coming elections 100% inclusive of people with various sorts of disabilities - locomotor/visual/psychosocial/....

This was a conscious decision on my part for various reasons. For one thing, I was teaching a course, and had my weekly meetings with my Ph.D. students, and every expedition with my DRA team-mates involved time and energy. For instance, when we had the first meeting with the CEO, one of his secrtearies had written after months of my colleagues pleading to have an accessible=inclusive election in TN in June, asking us to come and meet the CEO in the Secretariat. Now, I have been to this monstrosity of inaccessibility and rude behaviour by the police many times. So I wrote to the CEO suggesting that if we are going to promote accessibility, we might as well start by meeting in Vidya Sagar or in IMSc which are both truly accessible institutions. To my surprise, the CEO wrote in the eleventh hour accepting my invitation to come to IMSc. We had a promising first meeting when various promises were made. The next meeting was arranged in the Secretariat in the CEO's chamber. It is almost a matter of routine that a meeting is fixed for 9 am, then postponed till 5 pm, and Smitha goes to this `chamber' at 5 but the man does not get there till after 7 pm. This total disregard for other people's time is something you have to learn to live with if you want to work with Govt. bureaucrats, and I don't have time to waste on people who have no respect for other people's time.

I got myself a fancy smart phone so I could have a WhatsApp and be part of the deliberations on plans for this inclusive election 2016. I get over 100 messages everyday in this connection, and almost always, they vindicate the decision I took. Polling booths still typically do not have ramps of accessible gradient, or have problems with enabling people with visual impairment to cast their vote. DRA had ambitious dreams of getting people out of `institutions' (where they have been institutionalised) so they could cast their ballot.

 It has been a revelation to see Vaishnavi marshall/bully/cajole her forces ino trying to achieve the unimaginable. Many of our Govt. servants would do well to sit at her feet and  learn how to run such a campaign. Instead, they just end up antagonising her when she is only too willing to freely offer her services. Did the CEO try, just once, to organise his meeting in an accessible place? Can he find an accessible place in Chennai? His travel to any meeting would be in air-conditioned comfort, while the meetings in his `Chambers' mean  that people like Smitha, Rajiv and Meenakshi pay out of their pocket and travel in auto-rickshaws with their wheelchairs and crutches crammed in alongside them! What a great way to spend the peak of Chennai summer!

In spite of DRA working non-stop since December, and running an amazing programme trying to get the Govt. head-hgonchos in the Election Commission to come to the table and join hands in a serious attempt at making the 2016 the local elections in TN, Kerala, Bengal and Assam totally inclusive, the tragic reality is that while there has been some marginal improvement at a few isolated places, the ground reality has changed little since the 2009 experience. You just have to look at the 150-odd photographs of the general state of (in)accessibility of polling booths that has been compiled by Vaishnavi Jayakumar in Facebook which she calls `Throwback Trauma'.

I'll conclude this sorry narration with a parallel/suggestion:if you want to build a good centre for string theory, leave the decision making to a specialist like Asike Sen rather than an incompetent but probably well-meaning Smriti Irani! If you want to make this country an accessible place for PwD, please leave the planning to a Shivani Gupta/Vaishnavi Jayakumar rather than babus who have screwed up time and time again. I know the Chief Election Officer in TN feels DRA only complains without appreciating the steps he has taken; it is not that I do not appreciate the steps he has taken, but the fact remains that a half-built ramp that does not take a wheelchair user all the way to the top - and at a gradient which will not threaten life or limb - is a job half-done, and which needs to be left next time to somebody who knows what is needed.

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