Because of infrastructural woes, thousands of students with disabilities are grappling with the challenges of access and inclusion. Garima Vyas, who is in a wheelchair ever since she met with an accident in 2016, is fighting a lone battle as her university says it needs a nod from the government to make alterations in the heritage structure of the building to accommodate her
The usual buzz is missing in colleges and universities across the country as most of the educational institutes have resorted to virtual teaching in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. However, that was a ‘new normal’ for Garima Vyas, a second-year student of Psychology studying at the prestigious Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Vadodara, Gujarat, even before the pandemic.
She would attend just one lecture in a week, but even that would turn out to be an exhausting and frustrating experience for Vyas, who lost her freedom to move around freely just a day before Independence Day in 2016. A freak accident sheared her spine and left her in a wheelchair. Despite the setback, she managed to excel in her 10th and 12th standard exams. She is optimistic to continue the winning streak in her graduation as well, however, the many infrastructural barriers that she must encounter while maneuvering her wheelchair across the university campus are proving to be major roadblocks.
“There is a flight of stairs right at the entrance of my department building. My mother, who accompanies me to the university to help me around, must literally pull the wheelchair up the stairs. This is very dangerous as even a minor slip could lead to a major disaster. My mother has developed a knee problem due to this, so it’s difficult for her to do this every day. Also, it’s a herculean task for me to move from one building to the other in a wheelchair. So, I decided to attend just one lecture in a week,” said Vyas, 19, who is a paraplegic, a condition wherein a spinal cord injury paralyzes the lower limbs.
She is not fighting this battle alone. Because of infrastructural woes and attitudinal barriers, thousands of students with disabilities across India are grappling with the challenges of access, acceptance, and inclusion.
The day that changed her life
Talking about the fateful day, she said: “Since childhood, I have been on numerous treks. On August 14, 2016, we went on this trek to Pavagadh (a tourist location 50 kms from Vadodara city). That day we had taken a different path to trek up. It was an easy trek and nothing untoward could have possibly happened. There was a waterfall on the top of the hill, and I decided to bathe under it, like I always did. There was a man in front of me. He slipped and accidentally kicked my abdomen before falling off. There was a rock behind me, so I did not fall, but the kick was so hard that I hit the rock and it sheared my spine.”
With the help of the locals, she was transported down with the help of a makeshift cradle that was made with the help of a bedsheet that the family was luckily carrying and a bamboo stick. They immediately called for an emergency ambulance and managed to reach a government hospital in Halol – 13 kms from Pavagadh — in the nick of time to be able to take a crucial shot that is paramount for persons with spinal cord injuries.
“It was a painful journey. I had broken some ribs as well that were puncturing my lungs so I couldn’t even cry. But at some point in time I did realize that it could be something serious and I needed to be strong,” she said.
She was moved to a hospital in Vadodara, and the next day, she was operated upon. During the prognosis, the doctors predicted that she may not even be able to sit for the rest of her life. But luck was on her side and she defeated fate. It was, however, a life-altering moment in her life.
Dealing with challenges
Despite the challenges that life suddenly threw at her and the painful five-six-hour long daily physiotherapy sessions, Vyas scored a CGPA (Cumulative Grade Points Average) of 10/10 in her 10th standard and topped her school in 12th standard in the Humanities stream. Her school, Bright Day, was kind enough to make alterations in the school building to accommodate her, but the MSU university experience has been quite the opposite.
“We have requested the authorities at the university many times to make some changes in the campus to make my life easier. Every time they tell us that being a heritage structure, they would need the government’s permission to make any changes and that would take long,” she said, adding, “As per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, it’s a prerequisite for a government or public building to have facilities for persons with any kind of disability. If the buildings aren’t accessible, the authorities should be flexible enough to make the necessary changes at the earliest. My faculty is aware that my mother and I struggle every time. In such a scenario, getting permissions shouldn’t take so long.”
She is, however, glad that the university is making some changes in the infrastructure with the help of Vadodara-based non-profit organization Enable Me Access. The progress is slow, but she is glad that the changes are happening.
Need to be more inclusive
Vyas, however, said it’s pointless to put the entire blame on the university authorities as even the engineers who design these buildings or have been assigned to make alterations to the infrastructure are clueless about how to make the changes keeping persons with disabilities in mind. She narrated a terrible experience when she used the university washroom this one time.
“I couldn’t even enter the regular washrooms as the doors were too narrow, so I went to the staff washroom in the Psychology department. At that time, I was already dealing with a two-inch deep pressure sore (damaged skin and muscular tissues caused by staying in one position for too long. Those who use a wheelchair are always at risk), which was quite severe. It got exposed to the unclean toilet seat and the infection worsened after a few days. I had to get the pressure sore closed surgically,” said Vyas.
Another area that needs urgent attention, according to Garima, is to sensitize people. “People often stare at persons with disabilities or just jump to help rather than asking them if they need help. I don’t blame them. That’s the way our society is. These things should be taught since childhood. The problem is that we don’t encourage our children to ask questions. As a result of this, when they grow up, they lack the maturity to deal with such situations and hence end up staring at someone who is in a wheelchair. Even if they want to help, they don’t know how to offer help or what to say,” said Vyas.
She often faces this problem, but she has learned the hard way that if you can’t change something, get accustomed to it or ignore it altogether. Another ‘new normal’ that she has gotten used to is that there are limited recreational places like malls, multiplexes, or restaurants that she can visit after the injury as not all are wheelchair-accessible.
Her coping mechanisms
Accepting these changes must have been a daunting task for a young Vyas. In her own words, at her age, if not for the injury, she could have bunked lectures, partied, travelled, and even dated freely while never losing sight of her academic goals. She did have to deal with pangs of loneliness immediately after the accident, and even now, sometimes, she goes into a zone. When asked what her coping mechanism is, she said: “If I am going through an intense emotional outbreak, I write my feelings down. Writing helps me get my thoughts together. It’s a good emotional outlet. When I calm down a bit, I listen to music, or eat an ice-cream,” said Vyas, whose hobbies include playing the keyboard, stitching, and cooking. You can read her blogs here.
She is glad that she has very supportive parents and a close-knit friend circle, who are her emotional outlets. “I have at least 20-25 people in my life who will drop everything to help me out. They will fight for me, if need be. I am extremely grateful that they are a part of my universe,” she said.
When asked what message she would like to give others dealing with similar injuries, she said: “It was only after my accident that I truly understood the kind of challenges that persons with disabilities face. I especially think about those who belong to the lower strata of society, or those who are not financially independent or those who live in small towns and villages. It must be tough for them. There is a problem of awareness. The government does have many schemes and scholarships for them, but I don’t think they reach them. The NGOs, voluntary organizations, and ordinary citizens can play a big role in bridging this gap.”