Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wheelchair user in Canada denied access to Hindu temple

From South Asian Focus in Brampton, Ontario:

When Meenu Sikand wanted to visit a temple for the Karwa Chauth festival, she didn't anticipate any problem- least of all those to do with her wheelchair.

"For a long time now there's been no real issue surrounding the acceptance of the wheelchair-bound, and of peoples' willingness to include them in every aspect of civil society," Sikand told SA Focus.

Which was why it came as a shock for this Region of Peel accessibility planning specialist when the priest in Victoria, B.C., told her entry into the Hindu temple was denied her because of the wheelchair.

And she hadn't even been seeking his permission- all she'd been enquiring over the phone was about wheelchair access to the temple for the Karwa Chauth pooja.

The priest, Parmod Kumar, at Victoria Hindu Temple, told her wheelchairs aren't allowed inside the temple. "If you want to come for the pooja, then you have to do it from outside," from where the devotees leave their shoes, the priest allegedly told her.

Sikand was initially more taken aback than angry. The Toronto area resident was there to attend an Independent Living Canada conference, and was just seeking out the nearest Hindu temple for the pooja.

Karwa Chauth is a fast undertaken by wives to seek the well-being, longevity and prosperity of their husbands. Before breaking the fast in the evening, the ladies traditionally go to the temple, and all Sikand too wanted was just God's blessings for her husband Jai Kumar. And now this.

While initially slow to anger, when what was being said to her had sunk in Sikand quickly decided she didn't want to go to the temple- "not if I had to pray in the company of shoes". But that's when the story started doing the rounds, then hit the airwaves.

Officials at the temple moved quickly to limit the damage, insisting everyone was welcome at the temple. Even Parmod Kumar later said that's not what he'd meant, and that all are welcome.

At the time, a furious Sikand even briefly mulled litigation- but that soon passed. Now, she's more saddened that such things can still happen. And ironically, of all people, it this time happened to her, a government accessibility planning specialist.

"But I know, there's no bad intention in our community; it's more a lack of awareness, and of understanding."

Sikand, who had to start using a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury in 1986, said policy issues are easier to tackle- it's the attitudinal ones that are tougher to overcome.

"We as a society need to be inclusive- and we need to spread this message, of inclusiveness, especially among our younger generations," she felt.

Sikand, who is also an advisor to not-for-profit C-Sasil (Canadian South Asians Supporting Independent Living) headed by Harvinder Bajwa- who helped spread awareness about her colleague's misadventure in Victoria- was earlier this week at the organization's ninth anniversary fundraiser.

Again driving home the message of inclusiveness, the event fittingly celebrated Diwali, along with Eid, and Thanksgiving.