Call for disabled-friendly spaces in teen's plex travails

When 19-year-old Yash Sethiya went out with his friends on Saptami, all he wanted to do was rock and roll with Sid, Alia and Varun. But his experience at Cinemax, Mani Square, where he went to catch a show of Student of the Year, left him bitter and fuming. Refusing to "sit at home and seethe", he shot off an email to The Telegraph, wanting to know if there was any way he could make things better, for himself and others like him. Yash is a wheelchair user.

"I called up Cinemax to let them know that I am in a wheelchair. They said fine. We went up to the third floor and into Audi 4. But they had allotted us seats in row B, which is right at the back, while the entrance was near the screen. They didn't have a ramp and it would have been impossible to haul my wheelchair up to that height," said Yash, who was paralysed waist-down after a car accident near Ranthambore, Rajasthan, in January.

"When I asked the attendants in the hall how they expected me to go to my seat, they said: 'We don't know, that's your problem.' Someone suggested coming in through the exit, which is near the rear end of the hall. But how to get there? We went up to the sixth floor by elevator and then had to ask the mall authorities to stop the escalator to reach near the hall's exit. My friends hauled me up the escalator and through the door and down another flight of steps to reach our seats. It was a very difficult experience for them and me," Yash said.

The circuitous and clumsy entry cost the group the first 20 minutes of the movie. "The whole day was ruined," rued the Jackie Chan fan.

After the movie, Yash wanted to lodge a complaint. "But the place where one can lodge a complaint at Mani Square is completely inaccessible by wheelchair. I had to depend on my friend Mohit to go and write in the complaint book," he said.

When Metro contacted the mall authorities, they were clear that "right from its inception, Mani Square has always prided itself as a differently-abled-friendly shopping mall", with ramps, conveniently placed elevators, toilets for physically challenged visitors as well as wheelchairs and stretchers for emergencies.

Sudarshana Gangulee, senior GM, Mani Square, clarified further: "The visitor [Yash] had no problem reaching Cinemax on the third floor. His unfortunate experience only stemmed from his interaction with the Cinemax operational staff. On our part, after receipt of the written complaint, our mall operations manager immediately raised the issue with the Cinemax management on October 21 itself. Whether they can have their multiplex auditoriums re-designed for allowing access to wheelchair-bound film-goers is an internal policy matter of Cinemax and not something we can comment on. However, that does not justify any rude behaviour on the part of their staff and we have clearly communicated to them to ensure that they investigate the incident internally and take corrective action in case any of their staff members are found guilty."

Metro next spoke to Gautam Sarkar, the business head of Cinemax. He said his team didn't have prior information about Yash's visit. "Because it was a houseful show, we couldn't accommodate him in the front row at the last minute. Our duty manager personally helped the boy and his friends enter the auditorium through the back door. His friends even thanked us. We don't know why they felt upset later."

Asked about making their halls more disabled-friendly, Sarkar said Cinemax was sensitive to the needs of the disabled. "When someone comes in a wheelchair, we allot them a seat near the entrance, in the front row. They exit through the same door, which is on the third floor and is easily accessible through an elevator," he pointed out.

Yash said he really wanted the facilities for and attitude towards the disabled to improve in his city. And it doesn't take much, he insisted. "A few weeks back, I had watched Barfi! at INOX Forum without any problem. Not only that, the staff knew how to handle people in a wheelchair."

Khushboo Saraf, head of marketing and client servicing at Forum, said wheelchair-bound viewers at INOX Forum are allotted seats in the last row because it's closest to the entrance. The row has been designed to be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. After the movie, the visitor can exit through the entrance doors itself, which is easily accessible from the elevator. The rest of the mall is also disabled-friendly.

"The staff of the mall as well as INOX is briefed twice a day about how to take care of visitors, including those who are physically challenged. A wheelchair-bound person can visit our mall without a handler too, our staff will take him or her around," said Saraf, adding that the mall had set certain standards for those operating on their premises and Forum was happy that INOX was following its disabled-access norms.

After the accident, Yash was operated upon in Nagpur and underwent therapy and rehabilitation in Delhi. "In Delhi, I could take the Metro, play basketball, table tennis and badminton and even move around on the road near our place in Vasant Kunj on my wheelchair," said Yash. But he can't imagine getting into the Metro here, navigating his wheelchair on the roads of Calcutta or Howrah or even going to a temple.

"I visited Akshardham temple near Delhi and though they didn't have ramps everywhere, the staff helped me at every point. I felt like a VIP," smiled Yash. "People like me don't want to be treated special but basic infrastructure is our right," he said, adding that he feels sad that he can't visit the Jain temple his family goes to in Maniktala.

The other wish Yash has is to visit the Eden Gardens during Kolkata Knight Riders matches like he used to before his accident.

According to Biswarup Dey, treasurer, CAB, that is very much possible. After the revamp, blocks B, C, K and L have elevators and block J has a ramp. "Before international matches, we'll give out a helpline number on the CAB website. A wheelchair-bound spectator needs to call us on that number and inform us. Our staff will meet the spectator at the entrance and wheel him to his designated block."