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It is an ivory tower, literally

Divya Gandhi
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Found wanting: A professor with disabilities has written an open letter on the inaccessibility of J.N. Tata Auditorium at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. — File Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy
Found wanting: A professor with disabilities has written an open letter on the inaccessibility of J.N. Tata Auditorium at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. — File Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

To a section of society the epithet ‘ivory tower' connotes more than the academic inaccessibility of science institutes; it takes on literal significance.

One of the biggest forums of scientific interaction, the J.N. Tata Auditorium at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.), has drawn criticism from a mathematics professor for its patent disregard, in its design and architecture, for people with disabilities.

In a strongly worded letter, V.S. Sunder, professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, illustrates “the trauma and horror that a physically challenged person such as myself can be subjected to at this otherwise plush and pretentious auditorium”.

Basic flaws

The 750-seat auditorium, where veteran scientists and Nobel Laureates from around the world have lectured, has fundamental flaws. For instance, its main entrance has no ramp and can only be accessed by three steps from the porch to the interior of the building, and a further 18 steps to the auditorium, says Prof. Sunder in the letter published in the latest edition of Current Science .

And if you should need to use a restroom there, you will have to climb down some 16 more steps before walking about 10 m to get to it, he adds. “The toilets, needless to add, are not equipped to accommodate the needs of one who cannot even get out of her wheelchair by herself,” he adds. You will also need to negotiate some 16 steps to get down to the area where coffee, lunch and refreshments are served during intermissions.

“There is no evidence that the architects or the ‘scientific minds' that conceived the building imagined that someone in a wheelchair might visit the building. A Stephen Hawking, for example, will simply have no way of reaching the lecture hall by himself,” Prof. Sunder says.

“I appeal to the directors of the various institutes and presidents of various academies in this ‘science city' to not organise events at venues which are not universally accessible, and thereby ensure that science is not rendered inaccessible to some people whose only fault is not possessing the ‘ideal and flawless body',” says Prof. Sunder in the letter.

Written request

A.H. Chokshi, professor at the Materials Engineering Department at the IISc., who uses a wheelchair after an accident a few years ago, has also written to the institute's management asking for better access. “The J.N. Tata and Satish Dhawan auditoriums and those in individual departments could certainly do with increased accessibility. The IISc. is, however, planning to install lifts and ramps and make wheelchair-accessible toilets,” he said.

An IISc. faculty involved in the management of the Tata auditorium said that the hall does have one “VIP entrance” with a concrete ramp, but admitted that people in wheelchairs had to be physically carried over the stairs if they had to use the toilet or visit the lunch area.

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