By Jolly Mohan:
For the last 29 years, answering nature’s call has been one of my biggest struggles – because finding an “accessible toilet” in our country is like finding a needle in a haystack. When I took up my first job at a domestic call centre, I knew it had no lift, was on the first floor and came with toilets not designed for a wheelchair user like me. But I had no choice as I really needed to work. To help navigate my first hurdle – the stairs – I would reach office 30 minutes early, and my friends at work would physically carry me up the stairs, wheelchair and all (thank God for good friends). But this was the easy part.
It was the visit to the washroom, each day, that was painstaking, backbreaking. The door was too narrow for my wheelchair. So, at the entrance, I would shift into a regular chair and lock the door behind me. With all my might, I would hop along with my chair, towards the toilet seat. I would then shift myself onto the pot and do my business, then shift back to the chair and hop again with all my might towards the entrance. I would then slip into my wheelchair and hurry back to my workstation. This routine continued for two years, and even though it began taking a toll on my spine, I continued with it, as my career and livelihood, depended on it.
When I heard that multinational companies are more accessible, I started applying for jobs with a vengeance. But through my career, I have realised that washrooms at several MNCs are “wheelchair friendly” in name only. I have had to use toilets that resemble garbage dumps, and ones that are cleaned so rarely that they smell like public toilets. Often, they are used by anyone and everyone. Sometimes there are no latches inside, and I have a constant fear of who will enter next. I have cried myself hoarse to human resources about the issues but with little success, as the needs of a wheelchair user are perhaps not understood.
For the uninitiated, here’s what a truly “wheelchair friendly” aka “accessible” toilet looks like:
Some hotel chains like the Taj, Lemon Tree, Four Points by Sheraton and Ginger – have really taken pains to make their properties fully accessible. When I recently stayed at the Lemon Tree hotel, I was touched to see a foldable wooden seat in the shower area. That I could sit and take a shower so leisurely, without having to lug a chair into the bathroom, meant the world to me. When I got married two years back my new home was completely redesigned to meet my needs. The washroom is 8 feet by 9 feet and I don’t face any challenges. But the moment I have to step out, I start to panic. Being a person who loves to travel, I have to call every place in advance to check if it has accessible toilets. 90% of the times this is not the case. So, I need to prepare myself accordingly.
What this means is that I end up drinking very little water on most days. I am forced to wear adult diapers. Yes, diapers, even though I am not incontinent. When I first started using them, I felt very, very odd. But as time went by, I realised that if this is what it takes for me to lead a “normal” life, then so be it.
Going for long periods of time without water has had its own side effects. Kidney stones, for one. I am also prone to Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) due to poor hygiene levels of most accessible toilets. And being a paraplegic, the healing process is more complex; it entails multiple visits to the doctor and increased dependency on others. I have also had to take unpaid leave, sometimes up to six months, leading to loss of pay, in the face of rising medical expenses.
Many recruiters may not realise this but the need for accessible toilets for wheelchair users like me is absolutely critical. In fact, I can say with confidence that if tomorrow, I am given a choice between working for a company that offers tonnes of money but does not understand accessibility, and one that pays me less but enables me to answer nature’s call with dignity – I would choose the latter. After all, no one can put a price on peace of mind and human dignity.
India has over 54 lakh citizens with a mobility impairment, many of whom use wheelchairs, according to the Census of 2011. The lack of accessible toilets impacts all spheres of their lives – education, careers, livelihoods, the ability to travel independently, and live a life of dignity. It’s time we as a nation, advocate for the right to accessible toilets for all.
I am Jolly Mohan, 32, brought up in Lucknow. I did my MBA in Human Resources from Lucknow, and currently work at Bank of America, Gurgaon. I love travelling, meeting new people, and work hard to excel in whatever I do.