This is a really sad story, and a really important one.
Medal-winning table tennis para-athlete Suvarna Raj was allotted an upper berth on the Nagpur-Nizamuddin Garib Rath Express. She’s 90 percent disabled due to polio. When she told the TTE that she needed to be assigned to a lower berth, she received no response. He disappeared, and none of her co-passengers seemed interested in helping her either. She was then forced to sleep on the floor of the train until she reached her destination. She was also unable to use the bathroom during the 12 hour journey, as they were wet and dirty.
She took to social media to express her feelings, and received support from fellow athletes and others. Taking note of all the outrage, Rail Minister Suresh Prabhu tweeted:
Have ordered enquiry in the issue.We are serious about ensuring smooth travel for Divyangs https://t.co/DWoHTRMnrQ
— Suresh Prabhu (@sureshpprabhu) June 11, 2017
Prime Minister Modi has advocated, over the years, the use of the word “divyang” (divine body) to refer to people with disabilities. Anyway, Suvarna Raj had the perfect response to Prabhu’s tweet.
— Suvarna Raj (@suvarnapraj) June 11, 2017
It’s a really great response, and exactly what was needed, because this is far from a one-off event, and is in fact a systemic issue. Suvarna Raj, being a medal-winning athlete and a National Award winner, and involved in politics, got a response that perhaps many other people would not have been able to garner. It’s wonderful that Raj took the moment to call for wider change than just an enquiry into her one case, and leverage the attention that her case brought to help the community at large.
Trains are notoriously ill-equipped to deal with the needs of people with physical disabilities, and the discrimination they face is both overt and encoded into the way the railways work. This tweet is just one example of some of the things people with disabilities face when trying to use the railways, including questions like “You’re not going to go beg inside, are you?”.
Having a single compartment in every train for people with disabilities is just not enough, and is a wholly unsatisfactory attempt at making transportation disability friendly. We need to be finding ways to make all our public spaces meaningfully disability friendly without separating or casting them away. That kind of mainstreaming requires a lot more work than calling people with disabilities divine bodies, or having one separate compartment on a train for them.