news Sunday, June 21, 2015 - 05:30

  Swinging his metal cane from side to side, Veeresh took a step forward sensing that his path was clear. The very next moment, he banged his head against a hoarding hanging low from a tree, and stood there for a moment, stunned. Veeresh M has been 100 % visually impaired since birth. Even though he takes this route every Monday afternoon to get to his music class, unforeseen events like this can occur any time. “I run into hoardings or pillars, sometimes bruising myself, as they are at a height. My cane focuses only on ground-level objects,” he says. If something like this can happen to him on a route he is familiar with, doing something out of his routine is an even more difficult task, and is filled with surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. The News Minute accompanied Veeresh, a 21-year-old student for three days – once on a Monday when he had to get to his music class, and twice when he had to run some errands breaking away from routine – to learn what it is like for a visually impaired person to go about their daily lives. And Bengaluru like most cities in India, isn’t exactly a disabled-friendly city. Shy and soft-spoken, Veeresh comes from an economically backward family in Jagalur, a small town 60 km away from Davangere town. He moved to the city five years ago to finish his high school and is a II PU Arts student at SJRC College near Anand Rao circle in the city. Veeresh loves watching movies and hanging out with his friends. “I frequently go to movie halls with my classmates, I recently went to Sudeep’s Ranna,” he says. He is desperate to take up a job and contribute to the family income, but his mother wants him to complete his education. “I wish to become a journalist,” he says. Day I For the last one month, he has been going to Marappa Garden near Jayamahal Palace to learn how to play the keyboard. Veeresh doesn’t step out of his hostel without his lifeline – a white cane firmly gripped in his right hand which accompanies him everywhere. He has to take a five-minute walk from his hostel in Sheshadripuram, then change two buses and finally take an auto to get to the class. The road outside his hostel, which is run by the Karnataka Welfare Association for the Blind, does not have a footpath. So he walks on the road, often straying to the middle and running the risk of being hit as vehicles whizz by. It was worrying to watch him, trying to imagine how he managed everyday on the roads where no one cares about anyone. The first bus he takes will take him Majestic, Bengaluru’s largest bus stand where a maze of platforms can connect you to almost any part of the city. At Majestic bus stand (officially called Kempegowda Bus Stand), Veeresh navigates through the sea of people to find the right bus. Most people make way as he walks, some stopping to ask where he is headed. Once aboard the bus, he occupies the front seat reserved for the disabled. When he reaches his stop, he waits for passers-by to help him get an autorickshaw to go to his destination. If he is lost, Veeresh calls his music teacher who gives the autorickshaw driver directions. Day II Veeresh decided to go to the Directorate of Welfare of Disabled and Senior Citizens to inquire about government schemes he would be eligible for. Unlike us, he cannot just embark on the journey. Even a visit to a government officer too far requires much planning. He first called up a BMTC depot to figure out a bus route. Again, it turned out that he would have to change buses at Majestic to get to the directorate, which is located near Vidhan Soudha. On alighting near Vidhana Soudha, he walks on the footpath, which turned out to be as hazardous as the road – it wasn’t paved. Walking precariously over loose stones, he often stumbled and had to be extra careful as the footpath often ended abruptly without a ramp. There were other obstacles too. Encountering a street vendor on the footpath forced him to shift to the road for a bit. “There are pipes, garbage, parked bikes occupying the footpaths. At times, two-wheelers too whizz past us,” he says. Independent by nature, the “mobility training” he underwent at the age of nine helps him avoid potential danger. Crossing roads is the biggest challenge. For most of the city’s residents, Bengaluru’s noise pollution is simply unbearable, but it helps people like Veeresh gauge the level of traffic, influencing his decision to wait for someone to help him cross the road, or try it on his own. In this instance, he awaits patiently. On sensing someone approaching, he politely says “Excuse me.” The man helped him, but sometimes people just walk away after being startled.   At a red light, a traffic cop assisted him but he terribly misses the sirens which indicate to the visually-challenged when the road was safe to cross. He says in most places these have either been removed or have broken down. It turns out that there is no dearth of good samaritans in Bengaluru. A stranger offers to drop him to his destination in an auto free of cost. Normally, he always pays for himself, but this particular stranger refused to let him. Finally when he reached the Directorate, two things delighted him: the building had a ramp at the entrance, and that the office was on the ground floor. Happily, he said, “This helps us as well as the wheel-chair bound people, as stairs are difficult to climb.” He learned that he was eligible for free Braille text books, but the department did not have an audio recorder. They helpfully gave him a brochure about other government schemes. It wasn’t in Braille. Day III But not every building is disabled-friendly. The Bangalore One centre in a government-owned building in Rajajinagar is one such example. While you can pay practically any bill at a Bangalore One centre, PU students can obtain photocopies of answer-sheets and apply for re-valuation too. When he reached there (again, two buses via Majestic), he found that the office was located on the first floor which meant he had to climb a flight of stairs. He was asked to come back as it was nearly closing time, and there was no one to give him information on how to apply for re-valuation of his papers. Travelling to a new location is time-consuming for Veeresh as he has to stop every few metres to check if he is on the right path. Sometimes, irritating things happen. On the way back to his hostel, his cane got stuck between two slabs of the footpath near a bus stop. He managed to wriggle it out, but not before struggling for several minutes. Reporter’s Impression: When we discussed the idea in an editorial meeting, we decided to accompany a visually-impaired person as a fly on the wall – one who observes, but does not intervene. As abled people, we have no inkling of how our behaviours – such as insensitive motorists on footpaths – affect others. We also often tend to feel pity. But watching Veeresh go about his day with dignity showed me that what people like him need, is for us to empathise with them – take off our shoes, and wear theirs for a while – and public/private endeavours to make our cities and towns compatible for the needs and convenience of all kinds of people.