KOCHI: On October 15, Meera U Menon, a PhD candidate researching ‘Representation of disability in cinema’ at Indira Gandhi National Open University Regional Centré in Kochi had to go through a traumatic experience while attending an exam at the centre. Meera lost mobility in one of her legs when she was young. Her complaint about the ordeal of hunting for a toilet facility and sitting for a three-hour exam soaked in urine was met with a cold reply from the centre
Meera U Menon, who is a research scholar at the Ignou regional centre in Kochi and who suffers from a condition called Spina Bifida, prefers the newly constructed building on the campus as her exam centre the next time. “Since I have a condition that makes it hard for me to walk and limits my control over toilet schedules, it is difficult for me if the toilet is inaccessible. During my research days, it was easy because of a western commode on the second floor of the building. But this time when there was an exam, I was left with no choice,” she recollects.
The exam was scheduled at 2pm in the old building. Meera reached the centre at 1.50pm and noticed that the building only had an Indian commode which was not accessible for disabled people. Since there were no western toilets in the vicinity and her exam was about to begin, Meera was forced to use an Indian toilet and had to sit for a three-hour exam soaked in urine.
“It was terrible. The irony is that the centre did have a disabled-friendly toilet. After the exam, I went to check another restroom as directed by one of the staff members. But then, the toilet looked like it hasn’t been cleaned in months. Although there was a toilet for handicapped members, it was locked. I asked for the key but he had no clue where it was and said it had been closed for years!” says Meera.
Highlighting the nightmare, Meera wrote a letter to Ernakulam Collector S Suhas, Kerala Social Security Mission executive director Mohammad Asheel, Social Justice Department secretary Biju Prabhakar, the state Human Resources Department and J S Dorothy, regional director of Ignou, Kochi.
Most of the officials found time to respond, to Meera’s delight. The authorities at Kerala Social Security Mission and Social Justice Department responded with promises of resolving the issue at the earliest. But the response of Ignou regional centre authorities was nothing less than shocking.
Instead of an apology, Meera received a mail that read “It is informed that the toilet facility for the differently-abled (for learners) is available on the ground floor of the new block. It also shared that the new block is at the floor level and the differently-abled do not have to use the ramp to access the toilet facility.”
Meera was shocked by this response from Dorothy. “Expecting someone with my condition to walk to another block just to use a toilet is not a solution. It is a violation of human rights. The authorities didn’t even make an effort to apologise for the inconvenience that I faced due to lack of accessible toilets,” she says.
Disability rights activists claim that many of the so-called toilets for the handicapped remain locked for years without proper maintenance. “It is high time the authorities took steps to make toilets at public places and institutions accessible to the disabled people,” says Seema Lal, founder of TogetherWeCan. Highlighting Meera’s struggle, Asheel adds “It is sad what she had to go through. Locking up toilets for handicapped is a trend in many institutions. Something needs to be done about this.”
What the law says
In the Rajive Raturi vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court ruled that accessibility of educational institutions to disabled people must be ensured as per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. The Accessible India Campaign launched by the Union government envisages universal accessibility to them. “After Kannur was declared as a disabled-friendly district, steps are being taken to spread this to the rest of the state. In T’Puram, almost 51 buildings have been made disabled-friendly,” said Mohammad Asheel, executive director, Kerala Social Security Mission.