I had shifted to Noida in 1997, when Noida was not the Noida we know today. After all, Noida could not boast of its swanky malls, the 5 star hotels, the DND to connect to its elder brother Delhi and the beautiful metro was not even a dream we could amuse ourselves with (did I not add, we have our own amusement park too?).
Noida has come a long way from the times when there were only primarily two places to eat out - the Nirula's fast food joint for us and the Noida Golf Course for the elite of the city. But here, my focus is not on the evolution of Noida the city, but on Noida and how barrier free it is. I'm Nipun Malhotra, a resident of Noida for a little over 13 years. I was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder that leads to a lack of muscles in my arms and legs restricting me to a wheelchair.
I enrolled at Apeejay School, Noida on my arrival to the city - a model school for a barrier free environment. While there were ramps to the first floor, classes from the second floor were shifted down. In fact, to not make me feel different and to ensure questions weren't raised, another class was always shifted along with mine. Apeejay provided me with an environment in which I could flourish and I not only did well in academics, but also was very enthusiastic about participating in all school events.
I started small, playing the role of a tree in a school play but slowly as my confidence grew so did the confidence of teachers in giving me bigger and better roles. So much so that not wanting to be totally uninvolved in a sports day I decided that the best way in which I could participate or contribute was by being Master of Ceremonies. I worked hard till I got that role, after which I regularly started getting that role.
However, Noida at that stage wasn't very accessible. The sector 18 market had steps at the entrance to every shop and restaurant, making a trip for a wheelchair user next to impossible. I remember, till very recently, never visiting a bookshop at that time as none were accessible, and even though I was a voracious reader I relied completely on my mom's choice of books to read. However, I made sure I went everywhere I could and made myself visible.
Subsequently the coming up of malls made public places more accessible to a physically challenged person.
The Great India Place has reserved a parking for me, Spice always makes seats available for me in the first row and allows me entry through the exit so that I'm not inconvenienced, Radisson Noida added ramps to all their restaurants and the Metro made my dream of travelling by public transport come true.
Because most physically challenged people are restricted to home, those who are not face a challenge too. And this is because since in India it is so rare to see a person with a physical challenge' people don't know how to behave when faced with one. And thus while Noida has become extremely accessible, there are problems in 'attitudes' especially in places I visit the first time. While visiting malls, when I try getting into a crowded lift I need to tell people that I have a first right of entry and they can travel through escalators too.
And this is followed by the most sympathetic of looks, people behaving as if they are doing me a favour.
Till a few years back, I had to demand a menu whenever I visited a restaurant. Don't the waiters don't know I can read too? Or perhaps the physically challenged don't have a right to eat out! While I must confess the situation has improved, still whenever I order a cocktail, I'm given weird looks followed by a confirmation question "Sir, it's a cocktail..."
So through this column I'd like to give a monthly account of a physically challenged eccentric's experiences in Noida and his take on accessibility and other issues of the city and how it can be made a better city to live in.