Having spent half my life, in London and half my life in Mumbai, I am caught between two cities. I was born disabled in Calcutta (now Kolkata) fifty years ago. At that time nothing was known about my condition, which was cerebral palsy. My parents had to move to London as little was known about my condition. Since then, my life has been a mixture of the East and the West. I have done a degree from Xavier’s, Bombay University, and my two Masters from London – one in Women’s Studies, and the other in Information Management.
Currently, I live in London and have a part-time job with TCS London.
The diverse tale of two cities
Although I am a hybrid of the East and the West, I feel a sense of belonging to both cities. In Mumbai, I grew up and spent my formative years here. The city is home for me. But London makes me feel alive because it’s accessible to my wheelchair. Why, you may ask? I have negotiated London on my own despite having a severe speech impediment.
I wheel myself to work on my electric wheelchair. When it’s raining, I hop on to the bus which shields me from the rain. In London, practically all the buses are accessible. Like any other colleague, I zoom in on my wheelchair and am in place at my work station at TCS London.
In London, I feel like a different human being, engaging in all activities with ease, with all places being wheelchair accessible. Due to tremendous accessibility of public places, I live a very different kind of life in London to the one I live in Mumbai.
I am seen whizzing into supermarkets, chemists, bookshops, doing the daily household chores of buying and replenishing household amenities. I negotiate the weekly laundry at the local launderette. In London, I have the freedom to go either to an art gallery, theatre, cinema or an opera, without much ado. I can go anywhere…all this automatically gives me a sense of fulfillment. On my work days, I am seen whizzing in and out of crowds at Victoria Station and other stations. The sight is hilarious. Travelers and commuters have a look of horror as they see my wheelchair and think, “What is she doing here, she should be locked in an institution.”
The freedom with which I operate in London, I can’t do in Mumbai. In Mumbai, I feel helpless, dependent and like a child being helped around. In Mumbai, disabled women can go nowhere on their own. Access to a city is imperative to feel a sense of belonging. My friend Ketna Mehta who is a management consultant says:
“I love the outdoors….. Given a choice, I would locate my workstation in a garden and work in the sun! The Mumbai coastline instantly makes me joyful and puts a smile on my face every time I drive past…. which I have been doing for 53 years…..20 as a lady with spinal cord injury. I love this city and I am happy to be a Mumbaikar. I wish I could go sailing as before my accident, off the Gateway of India, and the Elephanta Caves, do window shopping on my wheelchair with curb cuts allowing me to navigate our lovely streets, spontaneously wheel into the popular restaurants, travel by our suburban trains independently, conduct all my activities without seeking support and help at every turn. Parks, banks, schools, colleges, offices, shops, buildings, theatres, movie halls, sport stadiums, public transport, municipal offices today are majorly inaccessible for me. In short, Mumbai, my city, is saying to a disabled: ‘NO ENTRY.”
Another disabled activist Neenu Kewlani feels that,
“Mumbai Meri Jaan! the city that never sleeps, is slowing waking up to the need of a marginal change in the new structures like ramps, railings, toilets and spare wheelchairs made available at malls, multiplexes and a few public places.”
Why disabled women have it tougher
Disabled women have to think twice for their toilet needs. When I was in Xavier’s for five years, I think I used the wash room about thrice in the entire period and that too because I was bursting and could not control myself. The rest of the time I refrained and held my bladder for five hours. For a city to welcome its disabled there must be accessible toilets all over the city. Actually, when I reach London, the one thing that hits me is accessibility.
Access is a major part. Although I grew up in Mumbai, I don’t feel a sense of belonging. By not designing public buildings to be more accessible, it excludes mothers of infants and elderly people. If the city wants to include all its people, many more ramps, lifts and toilets for disabled people are necessary. Unless adequate thought to infrastructure is given and enough expenditure is made by the government on ramps and infrastructure, disabled people will always be excluded and marginalised. We will remain isolated, invisible, and shut away in our home.
As a citizen of Mumbai, I long for my city in which I grew up, to be accessible. I long to be visible, living a full life…But I can’t. I have tried, as I worked at Oxford bookshop in Churchgate. It was strenuous as there was no toilet. I had to come home after every two hours. This lasted five years. I felt dehumanised and I was annoyed that I could not spend one full day at work.’
Without access, disabled people will always be dependent. If we, disabled people, are not visible, attitudes towards us, will always remain negative. I end with what Neenu says that although we love our Mumbai, there is a big ‘NO ENTRY’ sign. Until the sign is lifted, we will remain invisible and worthless.
Access also doesn’t only mean ramps and toilets. It means people’s attitudes towards us. Also, we need our identities to be acknowledged with a little bit of care for us. Unless our rights as citizens are met, disabled people will always be invisible, out of the mainstream of life, and second class citizens.