Volume 2 Issue 10 - May 15, 2004

Mall Content

About 5-6% of India's total population has special physical needs. Yet, we fail to include them in our daily lives.

I saw him being wheeled out of a swanky shopping mall in Gurgaon. Bound to his wheelchair, this man in a spotless white kurta must have been in his 60s. He was accompanied by a younger man, probably his son. I watched from a distance as they slowed down on reaching the main entrance. From this point, customers would have to use the stairs to exit. The son whispered something to the guard. From the gestures, it appeared the guard told them that they could not take the wheelchair to the car park. Well, even if they wanted to, there was no provision to wheel the chair. There is no slope for wheelchairs.

The next minute, I saw the son disappearing into the crowd. Meanwhile, the father was stranded alone in the chair amid a sea of busy shoppers. I could sense his discomfort. He pulled out his Marlboro from his pocket and hid behind a hazy smoke that began to form a wall between him and the rest of the world.

After nearly 20 minutes, the son surfaced. He'd parked the car near the entrance, left the door open and walked up to the main entrance. He then dismounted his father from the chair and carried him on his back till he gently seated him inside the car. He must have carried his father inside in the same manner. The exercise lasted an hour. By now, impatient drivers were honking from behind. The duo sped off.

About 5-6% of India's total population has special physical needs. Yet, we fail to include them in our daily lives. Malls with state-of-the art gadgets are out of bounds for them. In Gurgaon alone, there are more than four such malls attracting thousands of visitors each day. Hardly ever will you spot wheelchair users happily and independently navigating their way.

Javed Abidi, disabled rights activist, says: "Even if there are provisions, they are badly planned." Ansal Plaza is one example with so-called provisions for the physical handicapped. But Abidi says: "The gradient is so high that I cannot wheel myself in." The very purpose, then, is defeated. Movie halls and restaurants get renovated regularly but they are still out of bounds for this section of people.

For now, temporary wooden ramps in all the polling booths may be the need of the hour. That's a temporary issue. What's the point if we cannot accommodate them in our daily lives? Many malls are opening in and around the city. I wonder how many of them will actually invest in a simple gradient.

As for that man in the wheelchair, I doubt if he'll be tempted to make another visit to the shopping mall. That is, even if his son is ready to take him.

(Article originally published in The Hindustan Times, April 22, 2004.)

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