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Proudly unreasonable...

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... in the struggle to ADAPT the world to the needs of the disabled.

Mumbai's Water Kingdom is accessible to the disabled.
Mumbai's Water Kingdom is accessible to the disabled.

Menka Shivdasani

If there was one quality that Mumbaikars displayed on Terrible Tuesday (July 26), it was courage courage against the worst possible odds, an indomitable ability to cope with unprecedented disaster, and try to smile through it all.

The city, however, is full of people who display grit and determination not just in crisis situations, but in everyday life as well. When Neenu Kewlani addressed a meeting of the Indian Institute of Interior Designers recently, she had to be carried up to the dais on a wheelchair. However, she ensured that it was accompanied by a remark about how disabled-unfriendly that particular hotel was. And she packed quite a punch during her lengthy speech on her favourite subject access for all.

Quoting a well-known maxim, she said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man, and I am proud to say I am an unreasonable woman."

Neenu once delayed a flight by an hour-and-a-half because she sat alone on the tarmac in her wheelchair, refusing to allow herself to be carried up the steps onto the aircraft. If that was unreasonable, as some irate passengers might have thought, the fact is that she had told the airline ahead of time that they would need to make arrangements for a special lift; and the airline hadn't bothered. "But I had as much right to get onto the aircraft with dignity as anyone else," she remarked.

Neenu works with an organisation called ADAPT (Able Disabled All People Together), conducting access audits of public places to see how friendly they are; filing public interest litigations for better facilities and services, and creating awareness in an insensitive world. Sometimes, ADAPT's work has led to piquant situations, such as when they filed a case in court and discovered that the court building itself was inaccessible! But there have been many victories, including the introduction of special buses for the disabled which followed a long battle. Neenu was so thrilled that during its launch she took a taxi to the starting point of the bus service just to see what the ride was like and how the conductor behaved. Her organisation has also worked with public places like Water Kingdom and the IMAX theatre to ensure facilities for the disabled.

What is amazing about people who have to struggle against these odds is how they retain their sense of humour and their spirit. At the same function, there was an elderly gentleman, Rajendra Sethi, who is both severely hearing impaired and blind. "But if the lights go out as they keep doing these days," he joked, "I will be able to guide all of you out of the room!"

Together all these people are making a difference, silently, to our public spaces and our consciences. The problem is, the callousness goes too deep, and it's a constant uphill battle. The remarkable thing is that people like Neenu never seem to give up.

Points to ponder

These are not easy times for Mumbai, and while the festive season may have begun, the chances are it will lose a little of its sheen this year. Ganeshotsav, for all its colour and cheerfulness, is also a season when pollution tends to be at its highest. Priya Salvi, Consultant, Solid Waste Management and honorary project coordinator, Prakruti, posted some very useful advice on Karmayog.com, a vibrant online network for non-governmental organisations.

Priya talks about the dangers of plaster of Paris idols, hazardous colours, thermocole, plastic flowers and other material that contribute to environmental degradation during this season. She suggests using mud idols with natural vegetable colours, and creating decorations of optimum size to avoid causing hardship to pedestrians and vehicles, and generating as little waste as possible. She also suggests converting floral offerings into manure instead of disposing them off in the water.

This festive season, as fears of an epidemic mount with garbage piling up, this is some advice we just cannot ignore. Ganeshotsav is a special festival but this year, more than ever, we need to make it extra special, by showing a little sensitivity to the environment.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 19, 2005)
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