I remembered the Bollywood flick of 1980s, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai while I was sipping coffee and chatting with disabled rights activist Arman Ali in his chic office at Shishu Sarothi, an ngo in Guwahati. He is an angry man today. He does not mince words when he says, “You know I am 33 now. I get very angry nowadays. How long can you be patient and civil and polite to insensitive people?”
He narrated his recent experience when he had gone to watch a movie at a swank movie theatre in the city. He was on his wheelchair and he went up the elevator with his friend. He parked himself near the elevator while his friend went to buy the tickets. Just then, a few security personnel came and asked him to move from the place. He was perturbed and pointed out that there were others standing there as well. Why was he singled out? He rued, “It was embarrassing for me as well. Everyone started looking at me.” The security personnel started arguing with him again. Ali says, “I was so angry. I had come to watch a film. I had gone there for pure entertainment. I did not ask for free tickets or popcorn. I was going to pay for the fun like everyone else. I just wanted to have an enjoyable evening. But the incident spoilt my mood. The only difference was that I was on a wheelchair. The next time I think of going to watch a movie, I feel uneasy.”
Disabled people continue to remain an ‘invisible minority’ and you don’t see them in public places, precisely because most of them are inaccessible for them. And even if they are, there are people around who will try to make things difficult for them. But there an enthusiastic few like Arman Ali who persist and try to change things. But more often than not, they are disappointed. And Arman has a long list of situations where he had been snubbed or made to feel ‘unequal’.
A few months back, Arman was very excited when he heard of the Guwahati Half Marathon organized by Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati through a friend and was very excited about the idea of participating. The theme “Run for a Better Tomorrow” inspired him as he saw it as an opportunity to be part of a process/ movement. “This appeared to be an initiative which was based on a principle which is close to my heart – inclusion,” he says. The half-marathon was to be flagged off by filmmaker Rakyesh Om Prakash Mehra. He registered himself and did not ask for any assistance or any special arrangements for my participation in the marathon. Initially, the organizers seemed excited and even asked him if there are other wheel-chair users who would like to participate.
However, Arman was left disillusioned once again when he called the organiser the day before the marathon only to find that his participation in the marathon had been declined because of his disability! “I was informed that the organisers did not know how to handle (one) wheelchair user. He went on to tell me that the authorities could create problems if I participated and that the media would criticise them if anything went wrong,” he says. But Arman was persistent. Then, the organisers agreed to a “symbolic” participation which meant that I could be there at the start line and get off after 1/2 a kilometre or so. “I however, found the whole idea of “symbolic” participation a pitiful gesture and more of a photo opportunity which would make the event look picture perfect. For me it defeated the whole idea of “inclusion” and “open for all” run for a better tomorrow,” he says.
And this ‘bad attitude’ is all-pervasive and cuts across all sections of society. Arman narrated how he pointed out to a senior bureaucrat that a newly built park in Guwahati was not ‘disabled-friendly’. The bureaucrat called his engineer. The engineer was defensive. He said, “Of course, we are disabled friendly. We don’t charge entry tickets from them!”
The list is endless. Once, Arman needed to work out in a gym on the advice of the doctors. He has cerebral palsy as a consequence of which his lower limbs are dysfunctional. His doctor advised him to enhance the stamina of his upper limbs and to lose weight. He decided to avail the facilities of a Gymnasium at Guwahati. Here too, the attitude of the staff piqued him. He was asked to email a brief sketch of his medical condition to be placed before the senior representative. He was then asked to revisit the gym premises and they again started imposing questions so that they could have a better understanding of his body. He was called again and asked to go through a grueling session of non- stop workout (superset) for about 30 minutes. After a long gap, the Petitioner received a call from the gym and was informed that he would be allowed to join the gym only for a month and was required to make the payment of Rs 4400 and an amount of Rs. 7000 would be charged towards availing the services of personnel trainer, after which it would be decided whether he could continue with the facilities or not. Once he is permitted then membership for another six months would be offered to the petitioner. Next day, he was informed that the extra charges were for the personal trainer as compared to the charges being collected from others, as more attention was required to be paid to him. This time, Arman decided to file a writ petition to secure his right of equal participation and opportunity in Government Sector and private establishments as embedded and enshrined in the tenets of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Right and Full Participation) Act, 1995.
Inclusion of disabled people remains a distant dream for disabled people in our country and the idea of a better tomorrow certainly does not include the disabled. They face discrimination in every walk of life. Arman is visibly angry as he asks me, “I ponder on whether we are running or crawling towards a ‘better tomorrow’? It’s time we come out of this charity mode.” He continues to wage a lonely battle for his rights. He is determined to change things. As he takes me around his well-maintained institution, I meet many like him. As I step out of Shishu Sarothi, his words reverberate in my mind, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” I hung my head in shame.
(The write-up was earlier published in The Assam Tribune)