Saturday, August 27, 2011

Taj Mahal in a wheelchair

I visited the Taj Mahal a little over two years ago and since then have wanted to share my experience. I am happy that finally I am doing so.

I had gone to Agra with my husband to attend the wedding of my first cousin. Since we were going to be there for two days a visit to the Taj was necessary.

The best time to visit the monument according to me is early morning before the sun is out, because the marble becomes very hot during the day and you are supposed to walk bare feet. I was of course on my wheelchair so the floor temperature had little meaning for me.

The parking is located about 1 km away from the Taj complex entrance. There are eco-friendly battery operated vehicles; rickshaws and tanga’s that are used by visitors to negotiate this 1 km distance. None of these vehicles are accessible to people using wheelchairs. Therefore the biggest challenge is actually wheeling this long distance on a manual wheelchair. I wish I had gone to the Taj on my motorized wheelchair it would have been far easier to wheel the long distance.

As a wheelchair users, it was good to see that the Taj Mahal authorities had put up wooden ramps throughout. The ramp gradient was not to bad either. This was a great improvement from the last I had visited the Taj about five years ago. At that time they had placed wooden planks in the name of ramps so I was pleasantly surprised to see these improved ramps.

Out of the three entrances to the Taj only the East gate has a ramp for a wheelchair user. The other entrances have steps. One can wheel all round the compound without a problem. Only thing being that the ramps are provided at the extreme end of the complex, therefore as a wheelchair user I had to take the longest route possible. The toilets are inaccessible even if one finds a cubicle in the gents section signposted as accessible toilet.

The main mausoleum has 22 steps and is not accessible. But in spite of not being able to see the main mausoleum the visit to the Taj Mahal was amazing and not to be missed for anything

My quick tip for a wheelchair users who visit the Taj is -- visit the monument on your electric wheelchair. If you do go in a manual wheelchair then I strongly recommend you hire a rickshaw puller at the parking to push your wheelchair as there is a lot of wheeling to be done.

 A review of the accessibility at the Taj Mahal

Access Route to the Taj
Entrance to the Complex
þ(only from East Gate)
Ticket Counter
Locker & other Facilities
Main Gate
Drinking Water Facility
Accessible route to the Taj Mahal
þ (very long route)
Central Pavilion
The Mosque & The Meeting Room
The Taj Mahal

Monday, August 22, 2011

Road Traffic Accidents in India

I am a survivor of two road traffic accidents (RTA), both of which changed me life forever. The first one happened when I was 22 years old and it resulted in my losing use of my physical form as I become disabled for life. The second happened when I was 39 years old that resulted in my losing my soul as I lost my soul-mate in it.

It is two years to my husbands death, and as I drown in sadness and hopelessness, I cannot but help feel angry at the way our country functions, things that are important to us as a society, government corruption and apathy towards its citizens.

India has the largest number of deaths due to road traffic accidents. According to a WHO report ‘13 people die every hour in RTAs in the country.’1 I do not have statistics of people who become permanently disabled due to RTAs, though the biggest cause of spinal injuries in India is RTA. I do not even have statistics of families that are devastated because of the demise or permanent disability of their loved ones in a RTA.

But does the government care? Is it an aggressive issue in their road and highway building strategy and process to reduce RTAs? The automobile industry is booming with India becoming the sixth largest motor vehicle/car manufacturer in the world in 2010 and is expected to rise to the fourth position by 2014.2  Sure this is a clear indication of India becoming a developed nation but on the other hand if we reviewed our public transport system, that can reduce the traffic on roads, we would by way down on the international scenario, so to me it seems like a lopsided economy favouring industry, which I have nothing against as long as the economy favours social growth as much.

India spends less than 1% of its GDP on health care of its people. It may sound good but considering India has the highest population in the world, the per capita expense is very low. The state of trauma care in government hospitals in our country could not get worse. To say that the severity of my disability and the death of my husband are a direct outcome of the horrible attitudes of the doctors where all patients are like guinea pigs and the non-existent nursing caret in government hospitals where one is taken to after the accident. Remember most often one is in no state after an accident to take decision, therefore being taken to a government hospital is an automatic process.

Cost of private health care is soring high. Considering that the government doesn’t have adequate infrastructure to cope with the national health care needs, then how can they allow private health care to become so expensive. What right does the government have to levy such high taxes on private healthcare services?

Emergency health care, availability of ambulance with trained staff on highways is still a dream. My severely injured family was transferred from one ambulance to another at least thrice before finally reaching a hospital and it took about ten hours after our accident. All the ambulances were nothing but regular vehicles with not even oxygen cylinders on board. We travelled bleeding, unconscious and mourning on stretchers for ten hours alone without even one paramedical person with us. The only person traveling with us was the driver.

Lets face it Road traffic accidents in India are a high probability. Let me also mention without mincing my words you that in the present scenario there is no value for any body’s life in our society. Therefore, I would really like to urge the society as well as the government to take cognisance of the high number of accidents happening in India work towards reducing them and improving trauma health care.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fight Against Corruption

Today the country stands united in the fight for corruption. For me the fight is not limited to the Lokpal Bill and Anna Hazare. No doubt he is the man who has got the country together on a common platform in a non-violent way and I admire for that.

But for me unless the fight is much larger and more personal to each one of us it may dwindle. The fight for corruption has to also include the fight against discrimination that various marginalised groups face. According to me when our society is matured enough to fight together non-violently, then it is matured enough to know that discrimination has to be looked at the highest corrupt practice.

How can anybody justify excluding some groups of people from mainstream life and say it is not corrupt? Discrimination is a practice not only adopted by the government in the way they design their laws and policies, but also something that is practiced by each one of us for our own benefit or to avoid added effort.

My personal fight is against the discrimination of disabled people. Today just because of the way our societal practices, laws and policies, environmental design, technology design, cultural attitudes are, people with disabilities are discriminated at all fronts.

None of the schools, colleges or universities have infrastructure that can include them. Those with disabilities are forced into a home education instead of being allowed the same experience as everyone else. Additionally in the way education is imparted its inaccessible to most.Getting a good employment is rarely possible – disabled people are considered to be incompetent because of their physical form even if their ability supersedes the ability of  non-disabled people. Finding a non-disabled friend is like a dream, the attitude towards the disabled remains to be either charitable or indifference.

With bizzare government policies like awarding a money prize to people who marry a disabled person, how can we ever thing of their inclusion? Is this policy in itself not corrupt especially putting a woman with disabilities at a greater disadvantage?

But then, who cares if the disabled person cannot use the public transport system? Who cares if they remain uneducated, unemployed, alone and excluded for life? Who cares if they remain as to be the poorest section of the society?

The fact of the matter though remains that if it doesn’t matter to anyone then as a society and as a country we are all at a loss.

There is more than 2% of our population is disabled according to our census. According to UN 10% of world population is disabled and one third of this number resides in India. Imagine if is this large no of people are dependent on the system and public money instead of being contributory to the system – then who is at loss?

Societies indifference to the cause will not help anybody because if they are not mainstreamed then the cost upkeep of disabled people happens from societies money collected as taxes. So take action now and know that inclusion is the only way forward.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

An account of my visit to a government office

Today I had gone to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), Shashtri Bhawan to hand over a nomination of a colleague for the National Award. What an experience – it will stay with me for quite a while. It justified yet again my poor opinion of the entire government system.

As I reached there in a car the security guard at the gate asked me to get a pass made from the reception to allow my car in. The driver reversed and we drove around aimlessly trying to find the reception the guard mentioned. It turned out to be some barracks that had been put up next to the entrance. What helped in identifying it was a little common sense and some trial and error. Of course there was no signage to find them.

I sent my carer in to get the pass made because as a wheelchair user it was not accessible to me. It took her twenty minutes to get an entry pass made since by the time she reached it was already 1 pm and like robots that had been functioned in a certain way, everybody seemed to stop working. I wonder the chaos that will happen if the entire country was functioned that way.

Finally she came with the pass and we drove into that important building. I tried entering from the main entrance that lead to the MSJE (no signage was visible). The security guard at the entrance stopped me and directed me to the Facilitation counter instead saying that they would accept the nomination.

So again I got moving trying to locate the facilitation counter for MSJE this time. As before the only way to find it was asking the people around for directions. The facilitation counter was inaccessible too. So I stood outside the office and hailed at the staff to help.

The facilitation staff sent us right back saying that the reception, this time the one located outside the building entrance,  will open at 2 or 215 pm and I should get a pass made and go straight up and submit the form to the Section Officer. It was just 130pm at that time and this mean I needed to wait. The lack of ownership in the way each person performed was irritating me. I asked him sternly whether it was going to be 2pm or 215 pm as for me 15 minutes were important. Unnerved by my sternness ‘2 ‘ he responded.

I pushed my chair right back. As I wheel back Kapil Sibal Hon'ble Minister of Science & Technology and Earth Sciences, got out from his car right in front of me. Seeing this arrogant, rude and crude minister come in my way irritated me a little more.

As aggressively as Mr Sibal I said to the security guard that the facilitation officer had sent me right back and I had to enter now and I was not going to wait till 2 or 215pm. Well the aggression worked.

Again asking for directions from the people around I reached the specified room. As I entered I was shocked to see the state of this government office. There was a dirty stale stench in the room that reminded me of toe jam. As I entered a man was sprawled on two chairs sleeping. I had to squeeze my way in so as not to disturb his slumber. All the women were sitting together at one end of the office sharing lunch and chit chatting. Some other staff had head phones on were glued to the Internet watching live news of Anna Hazare’s arrest.

I asked for the officer I needed to hand over the nomination to the section officer. I was directed towards a passage that again was not accessible for me. Somehow I did manage to hand over the nomination finally. Now after having gone through this sad experience where everything from the building to the systems were inaccessible, I really hope that my colleague receives the much deserved award.

It was eerie in some ways. Each government employee had the same complacent expression on their face as though there was nothing could touch their incompetency. There is no reason for them to worry about the anti corruption movement presently staged in India; or should they be worried? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Universal Design India Principles

Co-authors: Abir Mullick, Anjlee Agarwal, Balaram S., Debkumar Chakrabarti, Gaurav Raheja, Haimanti Banerjee, Rachna Khare, Ravi Shankar and Shivani Gupta (In alphabetical order)     
copyright: National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad

1. The UDI principles are stand alone universal design ideologies that  focus in Indianness and inclusivity as they relate to age, gender, disability, caste, class, religion, poverty and urban/rural background.
2. UDI principles neither make any connection nor build on the 7 Universal Design Principles. They recognize the overarching importance 7 Principles in the field of universal design.
Principles     Description and     Guidelines 
1     Equitable/ Saman      The design is fair and non-discriminating to diverse users in Indian context
     •     Avoid prejudices against people of all ages, gender, disability, sizes, caste, class and religion.
•     Consider different capabilities of users and build in many levels of engagement.
•     Provide choices in access and use thru flexibility and customization.
•     Allow personalization through inclusion of adjustable and adaptable options.
•     Provide equality in challenge, opportunity and energy requirement.

2     Usable/ Sahaj      The design is operable by all users in Indian context     •     Provide independence, comfort, safety and support during use.
•     Facilitate access, operation and convenience by diverse users.
•     Include adaptations for those experiencing difficulty in use.
•     Provide clarity in use, operation and maintenance to minimize instruction and avoid confusion and error.
•     Adopt simple means to overcome complex operation.
•     Follow cultural norms to address user expectations.
•     Offer multi-sensory feedback to point in the right direction.  
•     Build in intuitive operation and innate understanding of problem.
•     Allow easy adaptation to facilitate use by people with diverse abilities.
•     Prevent costly mistakes and untended consequence from misuse.

3     Cultural / Sanskritik      The design respects the cultural past and the changing present assist all users in Indian context     •     Maintain social and traditional qualities in design.
•     Include Indian idioms to make historic and social connection.
•     Present in many languages for inclusive comprehension.
•     For all castes and society levels.
•     Respond to local context and conditions.
•     Employ appropriate technology to match user expectations.

4     Economy/ Sasta      The design respects affordability and cost considerations for diverse users in Indian context     •     Ensure affordability, durability and maintainability.
•     Use local materials for energy savings and cost effectiveness.
•     Focus on low unit cost through wide distribution.
•     Adopt modular approach to offer choice in features and price range.

5     Aesthetics/ Sundar 
     The design employs aesthetic to promote social integration among users in Indian context     •     Employ aesthetic to enhance universal appeal and use.
•     Allow personalizing aesthetics through flexibility, adaptability and modularity of colour, form, texture and interaction.
•     Employ appearance to inform use and safety.
•     Bridge wide range of meaning and comprehension gaps.

My wheelchair is not my identity

I became disabled person when I was 22 years old in a car accident. There was a very marked change in people’s behaviour towards me, and o...