I'm in a Wheelchair. And I Deserve to Eat Out.

Published: August 11, 2015 10:46 IST
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It was on the 6th of March this year that I was to join a group of 8 friends at an upmarket pub in New Delhi. However, I was denied entry into the pub with their management stating that they do not allow the disabled inside as a 'policy'. My wheelchair was also physically stopped, which, for a wheelchair user, is equivalent to being manhandled.

I left humiliated, and in an indignant rage at an evening ruined, I sent out one tweet at 9:49 pm about the incident. Little did I know about the snowball effect. In two hours' time, my phone was ringing off the hook - from media, politicians to activists. By the next day it blew up, and news channels and papers were flooded with the story. In addition, I also got a lot of support from the fragmented disability community, with people writing to me about all kinds of discrimination that they've faced. The social and conventional media pressure even forced the Delhi Government to call for a magisterial enquiry. 

What happened to me was a turning point for many. A friend took her visually-challenged sister to a restaurant for the first time, for example. While first I answered calls from well-wishers showing their solidarity against the injustice done by the restaurant, soon I was being asked about wheelchair-friendly restaurants. While I couldn't answer all the queries - as I've clearly not been to every restaurant in Delhi - this reminded me of my childhood and the challenges my parents faced in ensuring I had some sort of social life.

I was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder leading to a lack of muscles in arms and legs. While doctors predicted I would live the life equivalent of a wooden doll, I was lucky to have been born to parents who decided to give me a perfectly normal life!

My parents broke conventions by sending me to a "normal" school ignoring societal pressure to send me to a school for the disabled. They also strived to ensure that I live the same sort of life as anyone else my age. I didn't have friends in school, as classmates didn't know how to behave with a wheelchair user, thus restricting my social life to family outings. One of the conventions in our family was eating out every Friday night - that became my favourite part of the week. I was always insistent that we try out a new restaurant - little knowing that my parents visited every restaurant in advance, checking whether they were wheelchair accessible to ensure I would not  be disappointed on reaching a restaurant. 

As I grew older and entered college, I was lucky to develop a strong and sensitive social circle. Spending time with me, my friends grew sensitized to what is a wheelchair-accessible restaurant. In turn, I started relying on their judgement while deciding where to eat out.

Last month, I was attending a week-long executive education course at the Kellogg's School of Management in America. On one of the evenings, I was keen to have Italian food and asked a classmate to recommend a disabled-friendly place. He immediately logged onto Yelp, a popular restaurant search app, which has a filter to check whether a particular restaurant has ramps and other essential facilities for Persons with Disabilities. I immediately started thinking of ways in which India could have something similar.

On my return to India, I got in touch with the head of Global Content at Zomato. He was very receptive to my suggestion of having a wheelchair-accessible filter and how it would not only help wheelchair users but also a rapidly increasing elderly population. I was impressed by how Zomato started work within a day of my conversation, and has committed to ensuring this filter in the six metropolitans within the next two weeks! 

This promises to be a game-changer as when restaurants start being asked whether they're wheelchair accessible, they might find it worth making that extra effort to ensure that they are accessible. 

I would hope that this results in a spiral effect with BookMyShow doing this for theatre, Housing.com adding wheelchair-accessibility features in houses and maybe even Uber and Ola introducing wheelchair accessible cars.

We can do it - let's include everyone!

(Nipun Malhotra is an alumnus of St. Stephen's College, the Delhi School of Economics and is CEO of the Nipman Foundation. He can be reached on Twitter @nipunmalhotra)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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