Friday, July 5, 2013

Different Strokes: We can also think; won't you please listen to what...

Dear Colleagues,

Here is a real life experience coming from horse's mouth. Dr. V.S. Sunder, a well known mathematics Professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai who is also a wheelchair user due to a neurological condition called multiple sclerosis has written the following piece...

Different Strokes: We can also think; won't you please listen to what...: Today was another travel day when I would encounter the airlines and be at the mercy of their (in) sensitivity. It is funny how pe.....................

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When we travel with my battery-operated wheel-chair, that's a whole circus. We usually get to the airport something like 75 minutes before a domestic flight, and go to the little ticketing-type window which airlines have, that can be accessed before entering the airport. It is always the same: I start explaining to the person behind the window that I will need to check in my wheelchair and then use one of the airline's wheelchairs; the person says `just wait here, while we arrange for somebody to bring a wheelchair'; and we will have to go back and forth saying the same thing a few times before I finally get it across that it would be more time-efficient for someone to come with the wheelchair to the place where check-in baggage is scanned. When we get near the baggage scanning place, I remove the joy stick that operates the controls of the chair, while my wife unzips the suitcase and puts the joy stick in, after which I am seated in the airline's wheelchair, and that is when I am ready for battle.

After that, if I don't object specifically, the universal practice is for the attendant to park the wheel-chair out of the way and not even facing or in hearing distance of the subsequent negotiations which they have whisked my wife away for, `to speak on my behalf'. (She will be the first person to admit that I can speak perfectly well on my behalf!) This is when I know the `authorities' would make a song-and-dance about the battery of my wheel-chair being a hazard. Today, I specifically asked to be taken to where the discussion was going on. The official was trying to say that the rules demanded that they should be able to open up and see the `innards' of the battery, and I came back with `I'm sorry but you don't know the rules! I've taken this wheelchair all over the world and India as well. This is a dry cell battery, and these have been explicitly stated as being admissible'. And when they know you know what you are talking about, they back off like they are doing you a favour.

My basic grumbling point, and the reason for this post is to ask why the wheelchair passenger is always kept in a corner when their able-bodied companions are asked to do the negotiating – as if this lump of baggage cannot possibly have anything intelligent to contribute. Even if we can't walk, we can think, and (most) often much more logically and clearly than those who can walk better than us.

And I take serious offense at being completely ignored. This morning, in the shining bright new terminal at Chennai airport, after we had finally succeeded in checking our suitcase and my wheelchair in, we were asked to wait at an appointed place where somebody would come to take me when it was time to board the plane. It was about 12 minutes before the announced departure time when somebody came to wheel me in. And when we got to the security check point, my wife was asked to go with `all the others', while I was whisked through the security check, while poor Sita was probably no. 137 in the line she had been sent to. And when I was brought through security check, I was quickly taken away to the departure gate because `it was already boarding time'. My pleas that we wait for Sita, because she didn't even have a cell-phone on which to tell her what had befallen me, were of course completely ignored. Not just that, when we went to the departure gate, notwithstanding my pleas, I was carted off to the plane, with a comforting `she will come in the next coach'. This is the only airport in the world where they have not permitted the companion of the wheelchair passenger to accompany him/her at the time of security check!

Madras airport does another brilliant thing. When I go through security check, my stick is being separately sent through the scanner when I am asked to get off my wheelchair and raise my arms so as to be frisked. Not once has anybody had the decency to listen to my request that if they have to make me stand, will they at least wait for my stick to come through the scanner, so I can hold on to that and stand.

It is the same thing ad nauseum. Nobody listens to you at all, on the basis of the masterly inference that one who is forced to be in a wheelchair cannot possibly have anything intelligent to say, and can hence be safely ignored and treated like an uncomplaining sack of potatoes. My lawyer friend the late Rahul Cherian was advising people in the Aviation business and coming up with sensible suggestions and he was optimistic that measures would be in place, soon, to redress all such complaints. I had given him quite a few of my pet problems and he was going to incorporate them into his final formal recommendation. But the good Lord took him to his bosom all too soon, and I wonder if there is any hope of those ambitions being fulfilled. 


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