No country (or city) for the Specially-abled

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I am Fateh Mohit Whig, 19 years old from Chandigarh. A city widely branded as ‘the City
Beautiful”; a city whose Capitol Complex has just been announced as a World Heritage
site.

The son of a martyr, Major Mohit Whig, who died combating terrorism in Kashmir in1997, I was born with Spina Bifida. It is a congenital spinal disorder which renders me inactive below the waist with all its linked complications. This limits my movement to what a wheelchair permits. Also, I am currently pursuing law at UILS, Punjab University.

India is tagged as a fast growing economy and aspires to be a world leader by 2025. Sadly, despite the visible improvement in some aspects of living standards, there are segments that are still overlooked. One of them are the specially-abled who are made to feel crippled since the march towards the “developed nation” status has so far excluded them. Let me present a few cases where I feel we have been pushed to the margins of society.

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India is a signatory to the UN Charter on Rights of the Disabled. In this context, our Prime Minister has started the Accessible India Campaign wherein every year, 50-100 buildings in each State would be made disabled-friendly. This means disabled-friendly transportation and other facilities including washrooms, eateries and entertainment hubs. The first phase was to be completed by July 2016 but nothing has transpired in this regard.

I am embarrassed to learn that it took a visit by world-renowned Prof. Stephen Hawking for Government to realize that he couldn’t visit tourist sites in Delhi unless they were enabled with ramps. Further, his visit to the Taj Mahal was called off because even hastily made ramps could not be assembled.

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“Accessible” is not just a fancy term. It is an aspect that the bureaucracy needs learn about if they are to be in any position to bring ‘achhe din’ for those who sit in wheelchairs. We shouldn’t be made to feel any different.

Is the 21st century India really moving ahead for the disabled? Or do we not exist? I am unable to shop on my own, as most shops don’t provide for wheelchair access. The same applies to restaurants and movie theaters in the city.

Living in Chandigarh, the first ‘planned’ city in India, I would like to disagree with the notion that the city is planned – at least from the perspective of the specially-abled. Wherever the disabled go, we face a harrowing time. Be it going to buy something at a market, visit a park or the much-feted PVR at Elante Mall (where I have to suffer the indignity of being carried up to my seat). None of these places cater for the disabled in Le Corbusier’s “architectural gift” to India.

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Punjab University, Chandigarh- one of the most prestigious universities in India attracts a lot of foreign students, yet is still not fully wheelchair accessible. The simplest activity like getting a cup of coffee becomes an ordeal and embarrassment for me in the absence of ramps and elevators.

Now for Delhi, India’s national capital, including Lutyen’s Delhi. The similarity with Chandigarh is the fact that no park is wheelchair accessible. Here, I must mention a spiffy market place in Delhi, which I decided to visit with my family – ‘Khan Market’. I was appalled to discover that most eateries were on the first floor without any ramp/lift available. This is what ‘Saddi Dilli’ is all about…a world city, which is almost totally devoid of facilities for the handicapped. I am distressed about the public attitude towards the specially-abled.

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What I experienced at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, while traveling to Melbourne for rehabilitation treatment, was appalling. The security staff, frisking me, insisted that I stand even though I could not. It numbed with shock that we as Indians could be so crass and insensitive.

Now, it is fitting that share with you my 2015 experience in Melbourne. My father was the Indian ‘sponsor’ for an Australian officer, Maj Bill Sowry at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, Nilgiris, in 1994 and the families became very close.

Made aware that I needed specialised advise, Bill, by then a Brigadier and Australia’s Defence Attaché in the UK started an amazing fund-raising program called PUFF i.e. Push Ups For Fateh. He did over 14,500 push ups (four for every km of the Tour de France) seeking funding support for my treatment. Thus, he raised some 25,000 pounds that covered all expenses for travel, treatment and stay for a month at The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

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Brigadier Bill Sowry during the PUFF challenge

It was such a welcoming experience for me. I could go anywhere and everywhere without depending on anyone. Be it a market or traveling in a tram, Australia gave you the feeling that the specially-abled weren’t “different.” They cared.

We attained independence 70 years ago. Yet no Government post-independence has seriously worked to support and empathize with the disabled community. Most Government schemes for the specially-abled remain poorly advertised and thus remain hugely under-subscribed. Further, I do think the disabled need to be made aware so that they can help strengthen the Idea of India.

The most important thing before anything else is that the specially-abled amongst the poor get strengthened. They should not be condemned to leading a life of misery and neglect. I hope one day, soon, we feel emboldened, moving around freely, leading a less confined life with our heads held high instead of feeling like children of a lesser God.

-Fateh Whig

Edited by Mrinaal Datt

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