By Priyanka Sharma:
Imagine a child with a thousand dreams who is not able to express them. Now, imagine that child doggedly embarks on a journey to achieve those dreams, when thousands have already declared it hopeless. A common enough story, familiar to anyone who has friends who struggle with challenges – physical or intellectual.
There are only two ways in which society views people with physical or intellectual challenges – prejudice or pity. Labelled only by their ‘disability’, persons with challenges and hence special needs, struggle with lack of equal access to educational institutions, employment opportunities, and public infrastructure.
Yet today we have shining examples of those who have refused to accept such barriers and made a mark in their chosen fields. Take for example Ira Singhal, who topped the Indian Civil Service Exam in 2015. After excelling in an exam which is considered to be among the toughest in the world, she has embarked on the journey of becoming an Indian Administrative Officer. Ira suffers from scoliosis, causing an abnormal curve in her spine and affecting her arm movement. Despite facing 60 percent locomotor disability, she was determined to be a civil servant. In 2010, Ira was selected for the Indian Revenue Service – but was refused the post due to her disability. She did not let this discrimination stop her from achieving her dreams.
Today, the society knows Ira because of what she has achieved. She has become an inspiration for many civil service aspirants. But what was society’s contribution to her remarkable journey? Did people step up to support her in those painful days of struggle? In the eyes of the people she encountered on her trips to college, the judgment was already made, “So you think you can do this? You can’t!” Nonetheless, she conquered her challenges and proved that she has the ability to be a civil servant.
Another tale of indomitable will is that of entrepreneur Srikanth Bolla who heads Bollant Industries, valued at Rs. 50 crores. Srikanth has been visually challenged since birth. Yet, this has not deterred him from achieving his ambition. He was the first Indian with visual challenges to study at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA.
Today, he provides employment to people facing both physical and intellectual challenges at four production units of his company. But stop for a moment to consider Srikanth’s journey. Did he have to cope with remarks like ‘blind’ or ‘disabled’? Did he, like other visually challenged people face scathing remarks like, “How do you dream so big without even having seen anything with your eyes?”
The life of Debasish Das, an award-winning author, has also not been without its challenges. Not because he had cerebral palsy, but because of the societal prejudice he must’ve encountered. Every evening when other children were out playing cricket or football, his companion was his diary. Did people who met Debashish see the potential author behind the awkward movements of palsy? Or did they simply brush his diary writing aside as random scribbling because he didn’t look like their idea of a writer?
Nonetheless, Debasish’s creativity blossomed and today he writes short stories, poems, and other articles. His first book ‘Amar Moner Kalpona o Asha’ is a compilation of poems, notebook entries, and autobiographical fragments. He was conferred the National Award in the Outstanding Creative Adult with Disabilities category by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment last year.
In the realm of the performing arts where society has rigid notions of perfection and beauty, people with challenges are breaking the barriers. When Sandhya Rao takes to the stage, looking ravishing in her the Bharatanatyam attire, she mesmerises the audience with both her Nritta and Abhinaya. As her expressions and feet dance to the rhythm of mridangam, the audience cannot tell that she has Down syndrome. It is only later, when they come to know of her challenge, that they club her challenge with her calibre. Words of adulation begin to drift towards sympathy and pity.
Why is this so? Why should a person’s talent be seen through the prism of their challenge?
Is the journey of all who conquer their challenges – any challenges – not a journey full of valour and determination? Should we not respect and learn from people with challenges? Because it isn’t a cake walk to constantly have to prove yourself to naysayers. They truly are a story of ‘this ability’ and not ‘dis-ability’.
Until we do that, ‘disability’ will not be extinct. It will continue to exist in the attitudes of people who perceive people with challenges as a burden. Disability will continue to grow as long as society views a challenge the defining aspect of a person’s identity. Disability will continue to hobble ability – not among those who live with their challenges and strive to overcome them – but in society at large. It is time that we root out ‘dis-ability’ to make space for ‘this ability’ of people with challenges.
About the author: Priyanka Sharma is Advocacy Officer at the Amrit Foundation of India. She has studied Journalism from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. She uses her past work experience of writing for national newspapers, to achieve social mobilization and public advocacy for children with intellectual and development challenges. She is also passionate about using public policy as an instrument for the development of marginalised.