Sunday, 16 October 2016

How many times must a man fall down...

I posted a piece called `my comfort zones' some three years ago, which was primarily about the various steps taken by the then director to render our institute campus accessible to my wheelchair. And I have been boasting to all and sundry about this oasis of accessibility in Indian academia. But chinks are now appearing in this cocoon of protection that has sheltered me all these years. What set off this eruption - after a period of simmering discontent - was the fact that I had a nasty fall in the institute bathroom on Thursday. Fortunately, there were no serious consequences, but it is just a matter of time before one is not so lucky.

I want to list some of my grievances, if only to ask my other sister institutions of research/education to see which of these grievances they can confidently say are not applicable to their institutions. I wrote about my old school last week, and even the faculty toilet had serious problems of access; I dread to think of students' toilets!

Before we go into my list, I must repeat a favourite gripe of mine about calling some place accessible, when there is `only one step'. It is this totally unwarranted assumption that wheelchair users can negotiate a terrain if it entails only taking one step. This assumption is what led to my getting a gash in my head which required some five stitches being put in. (I am fine but for being bruised in spirit and in the head!) Every day I use a toilet some three or four times a day in the institute; and every time, I drive up to the door of the toilet, then get up, open the bathroom door briskly (lest somebody pull the door from the inside at the same time and causes me to lose my balance and fall inside), walk some six or seven steps, climb the inevitable step before getting to use the urinal, and reverse my steps. It was in briskly pushing open the door that I really lost my balance on  Thursday and took an impressive toss inside.

Only after my protesting (for at least a year or two!) at the absence of a single handicapped-friendly toilet on campus that one, and later a second, came up, but my laziness at going all that far makes me use the one on my floor where I had the fall last Friday.

And there is not a single bedroom in the guest house, where a wheelchair-user can use the toilet. I am tired of repeating the fact that many wheel-chair users are simply incapable of climbing that `only one step' or walking a few steps!

In spite of all the appreciative noises I have made in the past about the extent of accessibility of my institute, I even started wondering if I should sue the institute or MSJE, in the hope that such accidents will not recur. An American would do it without second thoughts; while I am held back by feelings of gratitude and loyalty!

In India, people's solution is `we will provide all help needed' which may mean some person(s) bodily lifting up your wheelchair with you, a `solution'  simultaneously dangerous, scary and embarrassing! In case you do not know what the UNCRPD is, look it up. It strives to reach a state where people with disabilities can function efficiently and independently in a society which extends them reasonable accommodation. Let me conclude with the two final paragraphs of Section 2 on Definitions in the UNCRPD whose sense and spirit need to be dinned into our collective conscioussness:

“Discrimination on the basis of disability” means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including denial of reasonable accommodation; 

“Persons with disabilities” include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others;

Sunday, 9 October 2016

MCCHS: 50 years after

Readers of this blog know that not long after finding myself a `person with disability', I started on a campaign of some manner of advocacy for disability rights, especially in educational institutions, at least in India. Recently, I found myself presented with the perfect opportunity to do some good. More precisely, I was contacted by some school-mates of almost 50 years standing, saying they were planning a sort of major reunion in January 2017 for the batch which graduated from Madras Christian College High School in the summer of 1967. I wrote back explaining my `wheelchair status' and the possible practical problems that might prevent my participating in the festivities. To my unalloyed glee, I got a call from Anantha Padmanabhan (one of a pair of twins from my section in XI-th standard, or 6th Form as we called it back then) giving an undertaking that an earnest attempt would be made to eliminate all such `problems' because they  wanted me to be at the reunion in January. 

So I suggested in an email to the Headmaster that I be allowed to make a tour of the school and make a list of things that would need to be done to render the school accessible - not just for me at this reunion, but for many possible future students with locomotor disabilities. (I even offered to help defray the cost involved). Anantha is a doer. He followed up my email with personal visits to the school to talk to the HM and Ms. Jacinth, the secretary of the OBA (Old boy's association). The upshot of it all was that I went to MCCHS today, along with my new old friend Anantha, met many of the Dramatis Personae, got the HM's permission and assurances of administrative help along with blessings for my suggested POA, I took some photographs to corroborate my assertions, and started thinking of the best possible way to make my case. The obvious answer was my blog, so here we go.

One of my primary requests would be for putting up ramps in many places. In order to counter any objections raised about the cost incurred, let me refer the reader to my post in this blog, for a design which could have been followed easily in the carpentry class I remember from the school of 50 years ago. 

When I started talking about ramps to Ms. Jacinth, she said they did not like the idea of ramps because they were used by two-wheeler drivers to park their vehicle where there were supposed to be none. An example of one of the many places I'd like to see such a ramp is in this place in front of the

 main school building. A raised platform without a ramp is, in my eyes, a blatant symbol of exclusion of the wheelchair user and acts on me like a red rag on a bull!. The tree in front and the cement seats nearby would not permit easy parking!

Not far from this spot is the staff toilet. 

This `L' shaped construction is meant to protect the modesty of a staff member, but serves to keep out a potential user on a wheelchair. Surely, having a simple screen instead of a cement construction would solve both problems. If you are the sort of wheelchair user who simply cannot get up to hobble a few paces, then you have no hope of getting past this `L'. On the other hand, if you are a little more mobile, like me, then what is in store for you after clearing the `L' hurdle is the second picture above. It seems to me that a stand-alone disabled-friendly toilet might be the best solution! 

One place I should have photographed, but forgot to, was the two sets of three or four steps at the front entrance to the main building (on either side of the sets of taps near the staff toilet mentioned above). A small ramp here would be most helpful. I need to talk to an engineer/architect for the most sensible design of a ramp in these narrow steps.

Another space which could do with some ramps (of a slightly different design than my `fit-any-flight' design is in the assembly area between the library side of the school and the main playground (F2?)

which has some five or six shallow steps sloping down gracefully to the ground. 

I then did a short trip down to F4, now taken over by the MRF for its Cricket coaching activities. The short trip from the gate of F4 to the Ravi Mammen Memorial Swsimming Pool (which I really wanted to see for Ravi's sake - he had been a class-mate of mine after all, with whom I have played inter-section cricket matches) was paved with one of those artsy tiles of irregular shape, which necessitate a wheelchair's negotiating ups and downs where a wheel could get snagged.

When it was time to get back to where we had started, we had the good fortune of running into the interior decorator overseeing the renovation work going on at the auditorium as part of a much larger civil work that has apparently been entrusted to the architects Pithavadian and Partners. When we spoke to him, he agreed that this was the best time to make any suggestions that were deemed necessary, since incorporating some of these features at the construction stage were obviously preferable to doing expensive retro-fitting at a later stage, post construction. The first thing that the concept of an auditorium triggered in me was whether there would be a ramp to make the dais accessible. My fears were well-founded; I found that this 

was the way to the dais!

I would really welcome the opportunity to talk to the architect from P&P - whose contact details were kindly passed on to me via Anantha by Ms. Jacinth after the HM gave the green signal - to discuss many things, including:

  • many places which could do with some ramps; eg. 

  • the possibility of smoothing out rough edges so the terrain in many places need not look like this

 and be a nightmare for a wheelchair user;

  • his advice on where to squeeze in a (probably stand-alone external) elevator. Not just potential wheelchair users, even the older teachers whose knees protest against yet another ascent of two or three flights of stairs, would greatly benefit from such an addition to the school's infrastructure!