“What happened to you and how is your recovery going?” A lady dressed in traditional Indian saree appeared out of nowhere and asked me this while I was reading the newspaper inside a hotel. It took me a few seconds to decipher what she was saying in the thick Indian accent.
I muttered awkwardly, it’s going well. Then she smiled brightly at me and said, “Wishing you a speedy recovery!”
This lady thought I was in a wheelchair because of a recent injury or illness. These kinds of inappropriate reactions towards people with disabilities and their lack of understanding of the importance of accessible infrastructure makes the actual physical environment very hard to navigate. I don’t know about the trains, but I know the buses in Mumbai are very much inaccessible. The buses here are often driving off when people are getting off or on the bus. And the narrow entrances make it impossible for a wheelchair to fit even with the help of strong men. When the buses do stop, they only stop for a few seconds (definitely less than a minute), which means not enough time to get my wheelchair into the bus.
I mainly commute around via cabs here in Mumbai. If you have the drivers turn on the meters, which most drivers automatically do so anyway, the price is quite reasonable. I did gather the courage and energy to ride on a tuk tuk (aka rickshaw) yesterday. It is good for short distances, but it is very bumpy and uncomfortable if you are sitting in there for longer than 10-15 minutes.
Despite the widespread poverty, the lack of wheelchair accessible infrastructure, and the enormous amount of rain ☔️, I’ve really enjoyed my interactions with the Indian people and feel that I am safe here. They are always eager to help, kind and, often times, friendly. For example, yesterday I asked a group of teens where Carter Road (aka the place where Bollywood stars live) was, they didn’t know nor did they speak English very well. The boy who spoked the best English walked ahead and asked some rickshaw drivers where that road was and directed me to come toward him. After the boy pointed the way, I said thank you and headed on my way. He then asked if he could help push me towards that direction. I said yes, because he seemed so eager to do it. Then we parted ways when the path to our respective destinations diverged.
A similar thing happened when I was trying to hail a cab back to my hostel in Colaba. I asked a group of locals where I could grab a cab after failing to see one for quite some time. They said I couldn’t hail cabs from that side of the road. Instead of just telling me where to find a cab, one of the members from the group turned around from the direction they had came from, crossed the street, and brought a cab to me. It was such a kind gesture, but not uncommon from what I’ve been experiencing so far.
If they see me struggling to cross a congested road or go up a broken curb cut or trying to get into a store or any situation where they think I may need help, they will ask and help me if I say I need it...sometimes they will just push me without asking, which can get quite dangerous.
I think the experience that touches me the most is the one from my first experience of trying to catch a cab 🚕. I waved to the cab driver, he acknowledged and started to drive towards me. At that exact same time, an Indian couple walked over and was about to hop into this same cab. The driver waved them off and pointed to me. After experiencing so many cab drivers drive away as soon as they see my wheelchair from major cities all over the world, I was truly touched and grateful by his kind gesture. I’m sure he hardly ever saw wheelchairs nor did he know if it will fit into his cab, but he was willing to put in the effort, be fair, and help this wheelchair user into his cab.
I am happy to share that these experiences have neither been rare nor unique. Many of them may be poor in material things, but they are rich in goodness. They are hardworking, decent, and kind. Thank you Mumbai for treating me so well so far!