My Wheel-Chair and I, Excluded by India

Published: February 17, 2015 12:45 IST
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(Malini Chib works with TCS in London and is a free-lance writer)

One can be patriotic even when you are abroad, even if your own country rejects you because you are disabled.  I am a proud Indian, but since the age of 1, I have been in and out  of London  to lead a normal life.

I am 48 ; I have Cerebral  Palsy . Yes, I am privileged to be able to shift countries - in that way, I am luckier than so many people with special needs.  But I still feeI the alienation and isolation of having to move from a country where all basic services and systems excluded me.

Being in a wheelchair in India leaves me trapped.  I can never go out into the street for a "walk", to buy stuff in Mumbai,  the city where I grew up.  I love  Mumbai, but I am made invisible because of this exclusion.

I have two Masters degrees, both from London, where  it was easy for me to get admission. I began my professional life late -at the age of 32.  I now work at TCS as a Diversity Consultant .

In India, for nearly four years,  I did part-time jobs and could not develop a career. These jobs were considered 'work-experience' - a kind of testing of my skills that others were not required to endure.  After having a degree and a post-graduate diploma in Publishing from the Polytechnic in Oxford, I joined  a magazine called Technocrat in Mumbai. I was treated just like any other employee  -so I  was pulled up for taking too long for a piece, but it was fun and I appreciated the honesty shown to me, as also the challenge.

However, it was inaccessible because the office was located in Nariman Point. As I approached the building, stairs confronted me. There was no elevator to reach the 9th  where the office was located.  My wheelchair had to be carried up by two or three people. I had to be helped onto the wheelchair. My carer had to come at lunch time to help me because the canteen where people usually ate and socialized was not accessible for me. So although it was great to be working with normal people, it still remained degrading and there was  a loss of dignity in needing to be lifted up the stairs due to an inaccessible environment. So although the work environment was conducive and inclusive to me and the attitudes was par excellence, the inaccessibility wore me down.

I left for London in 1993 as my mother got invited to London School as an academic visitor. The slogan for disabled people that I saw everywhere was "Rights and not Charity." Disabled people were seen everywhere. It was an age where disabled people's voices were being heard. "Nothing about us without us" was the chant of the day. After meeting a few disabled people, I realized I needed to be more empowered.  My speech was the biggest hindrance. Other disabled people who had poorer speech were getting heard as they were using voice synthesizers. Friends started saying that I needed to communicate on my own. At that time I didn't realise how vital it was to communicate without needing a third party. I was assessed and got myself a Toby Churchill  light writer.

What was terrific and euphoric for that for the first time in my 25 years, I could go where I wanted on my own.   The London Buses became accessible  -  a ramp comes out and I hop on without much ado.   I felt unchained,  free as a bird.

Then circumstances were such that I needed to move back to India. I couldn't waste away in a corner and sit at home. I wanted a job like my non-disabled peers.

I then did a two month 'work experience with Malvika Sangvi with Bombay Times. Of course the Times building did not have a  ramp. I felt again embarrassed  because everybody in the office knew when I wanted to go to the toilet because my helper would come and assist me. Once, on my first day, I slipped in the toilet and got cut badly.

Then I managed to get a job at Oxford bookshop in Bombay as Senior Events Manager. They respected my qualifications and I was told to build up a data base and increase the footfalls. I did that .The bookshop's office was so small that my wheelchair took up most of the space. There was one toilet, but it was not something I could access. Besides being unclean, one can count on one's fingers how many disabled toilets are there in Mumbai. I always need a car and driver to take me to the nearest one.

Whereas in Britain all public places and transport are accessible. Since I am entitled to work in London, I got a job in London at TCS. From my flat in Pimlico, my wheelchair meanders across rush hour to work regardless of crowds. I work in the HR Department with the Diversity and Inclusion team. I am a researcher and I look at gender policy. I am also involved with disability sensitization.

India has made some progress on this front -I see changes in wheel-chair friendly toilets at airports and five-star hotels.

If we disabled people are to be a part of society and life, we as a nation have to be more responsible to ensure that every public place has to have a disabled loo. It's all a vicious circle as lack of access leads to entrenched attitudes and this leads to oppression.

This is about human rights. I want social justice. I am entitled to my dignity.

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