2020, year of the pandemic: How this visually-impaired Chennai woman struggled with daily commute in the face of COVID-19

From the moment she steps out of her home till she reaches her Chepauk office, Aruna Devi requires assistance from passersby at multiple points. “That there is still no policy to cater to something as basic as transportation shows that there is no concern for us,” says the Chennai revenue official

Greeshma Kuthar January 04, 2021 20:56:53 IST
2020, year of the pandemic: How this visually-impaired Chennai woman struggled with daily commute in the face of COVID-19

Renuka Devi waits at the Sathya Studios stop to board the second bus to her office. Greeshma Kuthar/Firstpost

Editor's note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods of people in Tamil Nadu in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part five of the series.

[Aruna Devi has requested that Firstpost refer to her as disabled in this piece rather than differently-abled]

Read part 1 of the series here,  part 2 herepart 3 here and part 4 here.

"The WHO norms state that we should all maintain a distance of two feet to keep ourselves safe from COVID-19 . And that we shouldn’t touch any surfaces. If I were to follow these rules, then I can’t avail public transportation or even cross the road," says Aruna Devi, a revenue official from Chennai.

For Aruna, who is visually-impaired, driven by her zeal to continue working in spite of the numerous roadblocks that were thrown in her direction due to an inaccessible system further hit due by a global pandemic, 2020 was a web of complicated decisions.

Aruna, treasurer of the Society For Rights of All Women with Disability, hails from Elayirampannai, a small village from Virudhunagar District, where she completed her schooling. She faced issues with her vision growing up, but completely lost her sight towards the end of her schooling. After working for a couple of years in match box manufacturing, she managed to figure out a way to study further for which she moved to Chennai.

Three decades later, she works at the Commissionerate of Revenue Administration, Government of Tamil Nadu.

Why is physical distancing not an option for Aruna?

Aruna travels to her office by bus. From the time she steps out of her home till she reaches her office in Chepauk, there are several points where she needs assistance to cross the road, navigate traffic, to be warned if there is an obstruction or even alerted to incoming traffic. Assistance here means being held by the hand, or listening to queries that Aruna might have, and responding to them, both not possible if one is to strictly adhere to physical distancing.

2020 year of the pandemic How this visuallyimpaired Chennai woman struggled with daily commute in the face of COVID19

"If I were to follow these COVID-19 restrictions, then I wouldn't be able to avail public transportation or even cross the road," says Aruna Devi, a revenue official from Chennai. Greeshma Kuthar/Firstpost

Once the nationwide lockdown came into effect, Aruna couldn’t avail public transport, which meant she couldn’t travel to work. The few times she had to travel she sought help from friends who own three-wheelers. She had to report to work from the last week of August. “There was nobody on the roads for any kind of assistance, and it was a little baffling,” recounts Aruna.

She didn’t venture out anywhere after that, as every space, from a hospital to a market space has always been inaccessible to her. “Having to navigate them without assistance or directions would’ve been a nightmare, so I stayed in till I was expected to start work from 1 September,” Aruna adds. This, despite the Central Government directive that all disabled officials can work from home.

Aruna’s journey to her office involves a one kilometre walk from her home to the Thiruvanimyur Bus Stand. This journey has seven turnings, four junctions, two crossovers, one of which is an unmanned crossing at a national highway. At all these junctions, Aruna needs help to cross. From the bus stand, she has to take a bus to Sathya Studios.

To figure out which bus to get on to, she needs to ask around and be told the bus numbers of the buses approaching. No announcements are made to indicate which bus is arriving. Aruna has gotten on the wrong bus numerous times due to miscommunication. Which means alighting at an unfamiliar bus stop and having to navigate a horde of new problems.

The reference point that she has reached Sathya Studios is an announcement by the conductor followed by the bus going over a speed breaker. When the bus goes over that speed breaker, Aruna knows that it is time to alight. But on days when the bus doesn’t stop after the speed breaker because of traffic or the bus stops away from the speed breaker, Aruna is at a loss.

She needs to speak to people to make her way back to the stop, to a space where she is safe and won’t be hit by oncoming traffic as the junction is a busy one. “Because I am wearing a mask and because there is so much traffic, people can’t hear me over the noise. I don’t know which way to lean or move, so I tend to just speak out loud. It takes a while for people to catch it and respond. And even when they do, through their masks, at times I can’t catch it. It can get really confusing,” says Aruna.

From Sathya Studios, after further assistance from strangers, Aruna takes another bus which drops her off just a few metres ahead of her office. Even here, the autos parked illegally around the bus stop prove to be obstructions.

She has to walk on the road as the pavement isn’t disabled friendly and she tends to slip if she walks on it. Usually, a colleague or somebody who recognises her from her office spots her and leads her by the hand towards the office, right before which there is a major crossing.

2020 year of the pandemic How this visuallyimpaired Chennai woman struggled with daily commute in the face of COVID19

A passerby helps Renuka Devi board a bus. Greeshma Kuthar/Firstpost

These are the number of times Aruna requires contact and communication to be able to make a one-way journey to her office. COVID-19 made this contact and communication difficult, but even otherwise these are challenges to be overcome on a daily basis. Aruna says that she’s probably among the few visually-impaired revenue officials in the state.

Why then is providing transportation to her, and other visually-impaired people, available to most senior officers, not a priority for the Tamil Nadu government?

“I am working, so I am able to afford private transportation if push comes to shove. There are so many others who cannot because of how difficult it is to move around. People give up on careers just because of this,” Aruna says.

Johny Tom Varghese, the director of the Tamil Nadu Department of Welfare of the Differently-Abled told Firstpost that all disabled government employees are given conveyance of Rs 2,500 per month. “This is over and above the bus pass for visually-impaired employees,” he said.

The bus pass that the director refers to didn’t come easy. It was sanctioned after a string of agitations and strikes by associations of people with disabilities in 1993, many of whom were jailed for this.

But is this bus pass sufficient? As explained above, usage of public transportation is far from easy for Aruna. If she were to use private transportation to and from her office, a distance of 12 kilometres one way, the journey costs up to Rs 200, she says. Which is also fraught with innumerous difficulties.

“One such episode, I’ll never forget. I’ve not been that humiliated in my life,” says Aruna.

 

2020 year of the pandemic How this visuallyimpaired Chennai woman struggled with daily commute in the face of COVID19

Renuka Devi requires assistance from strangers at several points during her commute to work. Greeshma Kuthar/Firstpost

On 5 December, Aruna booked an Ola from her residence at 9.15 am. She was stopped at the Presidency Circle, where police officials told her she won’t be allowed to proceed. The death anniversary of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa was being commemorated and security arrangements were in place.

“AIADMK leaders were expected to turn up, so traffic was halted. There were so many people on the road without masks and the police wanted me to stand with them. Even after I showed my ID card and mentioned that I was a person with a disability, they refused to let me through,” Aruna remembers.

“I got off and tried to walk ahead, as reporting late would mean loss of pay. As I tried to walk ahead, a police official pulled at my cane, breaking it. I was hurt in this scuffle and by then, I was in tears. After this, I was escorted from there like a criminal with two officials by my side. They made me wait at different points for no apparent reason. I made it to office well past 11 on that day,” she recounts, terming this entire episode as inhuman.

The same thing happened on 24 December (which is MGR’s remembrance day). Her bus was rerouted due to security arrangements and she was told to disembark at some point at Mount Road, close to 2 kilometres from her office. As it wasn’t a route, she was familiar with, she had to stop passersby and check where she was.

“I had absolutely no idea about which direction to follow and on that particular day, nobody was in a mood to help. Finally a passerby stopped, crossed over to the other side of the road and helped find an auto. “It was 11:20 by the time I reached office”, she recollects.

Just getting to office is fraught with so much anxiety and these routine problems, as is evident from Aruna’s experiences from the last month of 2020. Three visually-impaired government employees work at her office complex.

2020 year of the pandemic How this visuallyimpaired Chennai woman struggled with daily commute in the face of COVID19

Renuka Devi's daily commute to work has only been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Greeshma Kuthar/Firstpost

As we stand at the entrance of Ezhilagam, numerous government vehicles enter the complex to drop off officials.

“That there is still no policy to cater to something as basic as transportation shows that there is no concern for us. The government thinks giving us a little money as conveyance will make life easier for us. Unless they see what we live through, how will they know?” she asks.

An added problem is how the use of gloves has made it impossible for Aruna to be able to feel the sensors of currency notes. “We can’t tell one note from the other, without using the sensors on them. I’ve lost a lot of money because of this confusion,” she says. But otherwise, sensors for people with visual impairment are largely missing from public infrastructure.

As we enter Aruna’s office, Aruna is told not to take the VIP lift that she usually uses. She is directed to use the general lift. The reason cited for this is that a minister is on the way. Aruna tried to explain to the security guard that she cannot use the general lift as the way to her office from the alighting point of that lift is unusable for her.

The path is filled with blockades which make it difficult for her to navigate by herself. From the VIP lift, it is just one straight route. After minutes of negotiation, Aruna told this reporter to lead her to the staircase. “Taking the stairs is better, at least I know the path is clear once I reach the third floor”, she says.

At this, the security official relents and escorts her to the VIP lift, saying that he will have to drop her off, since there is a security issue. As both of them walk in, two men join just walk in without anyone stopping them.

The lift leaves for the third floor.

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