After a euphoric trip, I sipped at my cup of tea, reminiscing over the days spent in England, when a thought struck me. Every spot of national interest or tourist importance had an entrance fee that went towards its maintenance. This fee, albeit hefty, was used prudently. While it ensured the place was all prettied up, it also kept casual loungers and the frankly disinterested away! Student concessions were also offered. In many places, we saw artists with their sketchbooks or easels, frowning in concentration.
What impressed us most was the fact that everywhere, special ramps had been created for the differently-abled, over which they could roll their wheelchairs. Consequently they could go everywhere on their own, without having to face the embarrassment of being turned away.
This is not the case in India. I recall reading an article titled ‘Are Public Places made to Suit the Needs of the Physically Challenged?’. Not really, I would retort. Builders turn a blind eye to making structures friendly towards people with special needs, as doing so would cost them more. The apathy is saddening, and so is the attitude of the general public. There is a tinge of apprehension, fear, sometimes even repulsion, with the callous even deriding them at times. Why can’t people hold out a hand instead of pointing a finger? The Indian psyche needs to be educated on this, as it is still a taboo subject, often swept under the carpet. No wonder differently-abled people are hidden so well that even friends do not know anything about them, and are left to live and die unseen, the modern invisible folk!
They do not require maudlin sympathy or lip service. They want to be independent — drive their own car, do their own shopping and live with dignity. Isn’t it up to us to see that they are given the right and the facilities to do so? Who can forget Helen Keller who was a saviour to those like her, partly due to the dedication of her wonderful teacher, and partly due to her own amazing strength of character.
Thus, ramps, wider lift doors, beds lower in height, toilets with grab facilities and separate queues might make all the difference. Public transport proves a nightmare, as many railway stations have serpentine steps, jam-packed with people and their luggage. (We never travel light) Bus stops are overcrowded, and it is hazardous for a differently-abled person to clamber on. Of course, if he/she does get in by the skin of his/her teeth, all the seats are occupied by more ‘deserving’ candidates, like a burly college kid listening to music, or a matron who has broken the Guinness record for shopping.
Little gestures, like a hand held out, a step forward in line, and just being around to aid, are all ways to make the differently-abled more comfortable. It is the little things that matter, and make people feel big. As Thoreau put it: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away!”
New Indian Express
12th May 2011