The conference on Mathematics Education on the 19th of August was instructive in more ways than initially imagined. One of the invitees was the distinguished mathematician, V S Sunder from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Matscience) in Chennai. In recent years, Sunder has increasingly needed support in walking, and now requires wheelchair assistance essentially on a full time basis. The conference to which he was invited, and which he kindly agreed to come to, was scheduled to be held in the Raman Auditorium in our Science Complex.
We were very poorly prepared. In the event, we made a ramp that made it possible for Prof. Sunder to make it to the front of the auditorium, but not onto the stage… The building was made at a time when our sensibilities were less developed and we simply had not thought of such things.
Coincidentally, Sunder wrote a piece that appeared in his column on the 20th of August in the Chennai Times of India entitled DIFFERENT STROKES for DIFFERENT FOLKS which ran something like this:
How many times have you:
- Seen an elevator with no braille signs marked next to the door buttons?
- Even noticed that the elevator you use in your office or apartment complex every day has or does not have Braille markings?
- Noticed whether the edges of steps are made of a different texture than the rest of the step (so that a blind person will know the step is coming to an end there)?
- Wondered how hearing impaired students cope with our system of education?
- Heard people tell somebody with mobility problems that a distance of hundred metres “is very close by” or that “there are only a few steps” when there is no ramp for easy wheelchair access?
- Seen a lecturer in a classroom draw something on the board to explain something, and wondered how a blind student would follow?
- Been to a party on a roof-top which necessitates that anyone coming there should climb some twenty steps even after having taken an elevator to the ‘top floor’, and wondered if the plight of the mobility-impaired are even considered before either the party or the elevator was planned?
- Seen doors that are not wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…
It was not just that the conference venue was not fully prepared for Prof. Sunder, there was no way he could come into the Administration Block or drop in at the VC’s office if he wanted to. Which means that there are several others in the UoH family who are similarly denied access… And that also includes the elderly- pensioners, or parents of staff, students and faculty.
Many of our buildings are now equipped with ramps, but we are a very far way from being what is euphemistically called “friendly” to the disabled. And the lack of sensitivity to a range of disabilities is endemic. Not that the attitude of most of us is crude in any way, it has more to do with what we think about- or more to the point, what we do not think about…
Our neighbour in the Council for Social Development, Kalpana Kannabiran is someone who has long been concerned about such issues, and from a legal point of view. In an article entitled Looking at disability through the constitutional lens, she writes: The most important right guaranteed to all persons by the constitution is the right to life and personal liberty. The right to life may be enjoyed fully only when we also enjoy personal liberty. There can be no disagreement that a life in custody or confinement, a life without freedom is not a fulfilling life by any standards. What does the right to personal liberty mean for a physically challenged person? Very simply it means that all physical spaces – private and public — must be barrier free and must facilitate equally the mobility of a challenged person and a non disabled person.
The constitution of India in Article 15(2) says: No citizen shall be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to –
- Access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment or
- The use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or in part out of state funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.
This provision provides protection on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth. But today we find persons with disabilities are routinely denied access on all of these grounds by the state and private actors alike, through the absence of barrier free access. Looked at in the context of Article 15(2), therefore, it constitutes a very serious form of discrimination. What then are the meanings of personal liberty for persons with disabilities in perpetual unlawful custody resulting from the denial of routine everyday access to every part of the public domain and critical fields in the “private” domain as well?
Clearly we need to be sensitive to these issues, and without merely paying lip service to the cause. Our campus needs a “disability audit”, and while we are doing a fair amount already, there is much more that needs to be done. And we require to be informed as to what some of these needs are, formally and, especially, informally.
As the saying goes, there are none so deaf as those who will not hear.