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What Is ‘Disability’? These 4 Brilliant Achievers Will Change The Way You Think About It

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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.

Ira Singhal. Image shared by Ira Singhal on Facebook.

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.

Srikanth Bolla.

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?

Debasish Dash (right). Image shared on Facebook.

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.

Sandhya Rao.

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.

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  1. Mandavi Pandey

    the disability cannot be an excuse for not doing anything……… be grateful for what you have, and, you will end up having more……… learn the art of converting your adversities into opportunities, so be happy, be grateful, be alive and don’t let anyone ‘dis’ your abilities.


    speciallyabled person need hand holding for channelising their energy and skill set for level playing field.
    Some of the organisation are doing commendable job in providing the opportunity for them. It’s real giving back to society.

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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.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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