In September last year, four urban adventurers embarked upon a journey to visit the 28 Indian states and cover nearly 16,000 kms in three months. Last week, we took two of them, Arvind Prabhoo who has quadriplegia and Neenu Kewlani who has polio, on another audit of sorts to a Mumbai theatre
By MALAY DESAI
In September last year, four urban adventurers embarked upon a journey to visit the 28 Indian states and cover nearly 16,000 kms in three months. The trip, which involved a nod from many government agencies and sponsors, made news not only because of its exhaustive nature, but more so for an extraordinary reason: the said people were on their wheelchairs and their objective was an accessibility audit. Last week, we took two of them, Arvind Prabhoo who has quadriplegia and Neenu Kewlani who has polio, on another audit of sorts to a Mumbai theatre.
"Paanch-akra-bara" (Five-eleven-twelve), reported Mangesh, the long-serving caregiver of Prabhoo, at the ground floor of Sterling theatre where we’d arrived to watch ‘The Intouchables’, incidentally a film about disability (featured in this space last week). Neenu and Prabhoo had been impressed with the ramps at the entrance of the theatre, and had raised hopes of Sterling being wheelchair friendly unlike many city multiplexes. Why then, were they slightly angry now, we wondered, before realising that the film was playing at a screen not accessible by either of the two elevators! Paanch-akra-bara then, were the number of stairs their assistants would have to carry them for.
"You see the problem?" Neenu asked us as we grabbed a bite after the film, "If at all there is accessibility, sometimes there is no thought behind it!" These inadequacies at many public places of entertainment in the megacity have dissuaded the disabled so much, most of them have fallen back upon alternative lifestyles involving minimum usage of public transport, wheelchair ramps and the likes. But what about those who’re not as well off as Kewlani and Prabhoo? "We’ve been in a long battle with various authorities for making railways and buses more accessible," Prabhoo tells us while sitting in his specially designed vehicle.
He and Kewlani are two of the many forces advocating better laws and inclusive amendments in India. Prabhoo, 44, with his travels across the world, knows more and hence sees a long way before India, a nation where one in ten people has a disability, reaches accessibility levels of the West. "And as far as theatres or auditoriums are concerned, I have been to ones which have ramps, vacant spaces and special toilets for wheelchair users, and most importantly, a staff that understands disabled visitors," he says, adding, "the least we could do here is the last bit, sensitise the staff."
If there were a single lesson from their trans-national journey last year, it is that much work is to be done legally and infrastructure-wise to make most of India’s tourist spots disabled-friendly. "Our monuments, palaces and gardens may be huge but aren’t designed for us!" Neenu complains, citing the example of the Akshardham temple at Gandhinagar. "Its exhibition areas were accessible, the main temple wasn’t… beat that!" Lack of such application in the disability sector hurts tourism in many ways. It’s worthy to note that several sectors in North and South America are so wheelchair friendly; the senior citizen tourists contribute substantial grease to the wheels of tourism.
On the awareness front too, things were found to be bleak during the duo’s tour. "If there is no information, there is no scope for sensitivity. At many places, we found the disability commissioners themselves to be ignorant and unqualified, as if they’d been relegated to this job as punishment," informs Prabhoo. All their travails weren’t just a dark cloud though; there was the unexpected silver lining at many places. "Say what you want about Mayawati but our experience in her state was more pleasant," Neenu admits. Also, the team found the commissioner in Bihar to be a bright, hands-on guy who’d do wonders in Mumbai but was powerless beyond a point in his state machinery. Down South, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka too showed room for improvement.
Personally, the ‘Beyond Borders – Incredible India’ tour turned out to be a life-changing experience for Neenu, Prabhoo and their companions. While our lady stops at calling it a confidence boosting triumph, Prabhoo goes ahead and dubs it a new life. "With the sort of impossibilities we faced, finishing the trip was an achievement," he boasts.
Ironically, Prabhoo, who’d done this journey on road (as opposed to the ladies of the team who’d flown some sectors) was nothing less than helpless at this theatre in his home town, a trip that had required much less bravado. "It’s upsetting. It only means that there’s so much to be done. Unless the concerned authorities – whether here or at other public places – develop an inclusive mindset, it’s going to be tough," he feels.
Thankfully, the film itself was everything that the theatre was not – sensitive, supportive and with a sense of humour. But if Neenu, Prabhoo and their activist colleagues in non-profits, working for a more accessible country have some brownie points their way, they won’t mind disabled friendly theatres even if they’d show the most outrageous, offensive films.
(This is part of a series of articles that celebrate the intriguing lives of persons with disabilities, an initiative of Trinayani, an advocacy trust. To read the past features, visit www.trinayani.org, firstname.lastname@example.org)