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I Had No Idea How Much Society Discriminates Against The Disabled Until I Lost My Sight

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By Kapil Kumar:

How Society Discriminates Against The DisabledDisability is something which can happen to anyone and at any time. It is acquired not always by birth and can happen also by accidents in the course of one’s life. In that case, the term “temporarily able bodied” used to denote the so-called normal people by Professor Anita Ghai becomes relevant.

In my case too, this is a fact. In fact, today, I am a person who has 100% sightlessness. I did not have this disability right from my birth. I acquired it, due to some accident. By that time, I never knew or had never imagined having any disability.

Disability, either natural or acquired, carries with itself a number of superstitions and myths. More specifically, Indian society attaches the concept of ‘karma’ to disabled people. Therefore, people have prejudices towards persons with disabilities. They are generally tried to be kept away from all major activities in society. Society, often, even attempts to deprive them of their basic right of attaining education and employment. Furthermore, disabled people are regarded as either asexual or impotent.

The truth about it, I realised only after acquiring the disability. Once I became blind, I became an object of sympathy and pity. A number of times, I have heard people say, “bechara pichley janam ke karm bhog raha hai (this poor fellow is reaping the harvest of his previous birth).” Usually, people consider me to be a weak fellow, someone who is helpless. Whatever knowledge one has, whatever talent one might have does not seem to matter. Nobody cares to give serious thought to the suggestions provided by a disabled person. In a way, even in my case, attempts were made at various places to keep me away from all big events. In the case of employment too, I have some bitter experiences.

In the year 2009, I got through the written examination as well as the interview conducted for the post of a clerk at a government bank. I was called for document verification and a medical fitness test. There, I was handed a list of medical tests which I had to get done. I got them done and returned to the main branch on the said day to submit the report. The doctor at the bank refused to sign my medical report and referred my issue to the head office. When I filed a Right To Information request, I received a response telling me that I had been found unfit in the medical test. I still don’t know what the grounds were for that? And the question still persists in my mind. What is the actual definition of medical fitness?

Around 12 years ago, after completing my schooling from a special school, I entered into a new arena. I came to Delhi to pursue higher education. I got admission in one of the reputed colleges of Delhi University. There I found that, for me, the buildings were not accessible. For enjoying even the basic right of getting an education and employment, an accessible environment is required. This fact is also recognised in the Persons with disabilities Act of 1995 and in United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006. In the absence of a disabled friendly infrastructure, it becomes quite tough for a disabled person to continue with his or her education or employment.

Disabled people not only face structural barriers but also, attitudinal barriers. Usually, the institutions in which disabled people work are not found to be disabled friendly. They are not constructed in a way in which disabled people could either work or move efficiently. The phrase “job without work” explains it well. In fact, disabled persons have a lot of capabilities, they have talent and potential. But, their employers are, most of the time, not interested in making use of their capabilities.

Over the years, I have experienced that these institutional barriers demotivate students from taking admissions. Students with disabilities generally prefer those spaces which do not restrict their mobility. Not only mobility, it is also necessary that these institutions be equipped with all the required assistive devices so that admitted disabled students are able to cope with the conditions.

Besides, colleagues in almost all the institutions where disabled people either study or work are not empathetic enough to understand their limitations. Most of the time, they are found to undermine or underestimate the abilities of their disabled colleagues. Sight has a dominant role to play in their view. According to them, in the absence of it there is nothing left in the lives of people. Sighted people consider disabled people weak and fools, and thus, generally look down on them and try to make them feel inferior.

While pursuing my masters and then M.Phil., I had a number of such experiences. My classmates sometimes used to walk past me without identifying themselves so that I didn’t ask them to do some work of mine. It is also a fact that if any disabled person performs better than his or her classmates, they start discriminating against him. I have firsthand experience of it. When I started performing well at academics, my sighted classmates started to find excuses for not helping me. Moreover, without considering my limitations, they started feeling jealous of me. In one way or the other, they attempted to make me feel inferior. Therefore, it’s not only the institutional barriers which halt our journey towards success but, also, it’s the attitude of the society which is non-progressive and non-cooperative towards disabled people.

In today’s discourse, people in society talk about gender discrimination. They can be seen talking about caste discrimination. But, rarely does one talk about discrimination against disabled people. The society, which is dominated by sighted people, under the influence of ‘ableism‘, hardly attempts to raise the issues related to the lives of disabled people. Day by day, hardships faced by disabled people are increasing. Their basic needs are being neglected. But no reputed human rights activist or NGO, even tries to put forward issues of disabled people seriously in the public arena.

Disability is not merely a condition, but also an experience. A person, who in some way or the other becomes disabled, is forced to undergo traumatic experiences. Society, rather than assisting that individual to cope with the odds against him, demoralises and discourages him. That individual, in place of concentrating on his or her limitations and trying to overcome them, directs all his strength to resist the neglect which he faces in the society.

The need of the hour is to make society sensitive towards the needs of disabled individuals. Also, there is a need to make society understand that disabled persons are also human beings like others in society are. These disabled people also share the same feelings or sentiments which other members of the community share. Society must realise its responsibilities towards its disabled citizens and, therefore, not only must structural barriers be reduced but, attempts should be made towards lessening the attitudinal barriers against disabled persons also. Only such an atmosphere can help a disabled individual to lead a self-respecting and dignified life. At the end, I would like to repeat my words that disability is not acquired only by birth. It can happen to any individual at any point in his or her life.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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