Few months back I went for an interview. The board members saw my resume and noticed that I had mentioned myself as a disability rights activist, they asked me where and how many times have I marched or done protests against the government’s failure in restoring the rights of disabled. I replied in negative and after a long pregnant pause a quick question came up. “What kind of an activist are you? Are you not aggressive?” With suspicion and doubts about my credentials their questioning eyes labelled me as ‘passive’ for the cause. They continued asking, “Tell us what you are doing for the movement”. When I replied that my activism is mostly online or through social media and I write a lot and have prepared manuals for persons with disabilities on various topics, another snapping reply came, “You should be out there. If you’re not out there, you’re not impacting people as well the government agencies. If you want to write you must sit at home and continue writing”. Though the position demanded many other capabilities like administrative and organizational skills, leadership and communicational prowess along with absolute dedication towards the cause, I lacked conventional form of activism. I was rejected!
And lo! Here again I confronted a typification, though of different kind. Activists have to hit the roads!
I thought it was not their fault. The culturally established role of an activists demands hitting the streets. According to usual standards, an activist begins and ends at gathering and protesting at the places which have been assigned for the same objective since ages. And so they expected to see my ‘that’ kind of activism.
For many days I internalized the pressure to participate in this particular way, not only because of its importance and historical roots, but also because of the embarrassment that I had felt for not participating out in open.
Frankly speaking, I have been a life-long activist who has not taken up ‘traditional’ protests.
I do not want to demean or minimize anyone’s movement work. Hitting the streets and collective protests are also important, powerful and transformative. We all have witnessed the impact of marches and actions since time and again – raising public consciousness and bringing together groups of all people protesting discrimination and injustice.
I understand it very well that the organizers of such protests and gatherings need a crowd of people to show strength in order to impact the government agencies about the demands of the community. But let us be honest with ourselves. When we talk about Disability Rights, how many of non disabled people would really be comfortable with this idea? When majority of people don’t even like to talk about disability how would they know what actually Disability Rights mean? When hundreds and thousands of us go out on the streets to ask for our legitimate rights, how many non disabled would voluntarily come and join us looking at disability from the human rights perspective? The bystanders and onlookers gather just to stare at us sympathetically with their charity mode on or they completely avoid looking at us because the sight of disabled people makes them feel awkward. People would look at them and feel sorry for them, rather than thinking to offer them jobs or ask them out on a date, which is the kind of inclusion we want from other people. And even among the disabled people who attend such gatherings, how of many of them actually do understand what they have gathered for!
Rather I feel it is nothing less than an ableist approach that everyone can march and hit the streets. Having a disability can make it difficult to attend. Thousands of people in the streets may face the risks of police action, tear gassing, arrest or a possible stampede. Some of us simply don’t have the emotional or physical capacity to attend such gatherings. Some cannot stand for a longer period of time, some with chronic pain can feel discomfort, some with intellectual disorders or psychosocial disabilities can feel overwhelmed by huge crowd around them.
I believe that there is no right or wrong way to be an activist. It is more important to look at the actions being undertaken rather than how individuals define themselves. Defining ourselves as activists’ means that we are able to take a firm stand to bring a required change. Activism in conventional sense is based upon a fallacy that it is only activists that bring social change. If our actions point towards our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social change, we all are activists.
I have never remained silent. I have always been the voice of those who cannot speak up for themselves. In no way I have submitted to oppression of any kind, but I do believe we all have the right to choose our engagements. I was the first one to start free online counselling for persons with disabilities in India. I released the first ever mobile application for disabled; I started virtual classes; I launched the first ever Comprehensive Sexuality Education Online Course for which I prepared more than 400 lessons; I wrote manuals for women with disabilities and I did everything without asking for any monetary benefits in returns. Is this not activism? There are a myriad ways to be an activist. And to be a disability rights activist we need to choose the way that is the most accessible for us.
I have chosen to write. It is my form of activism. Though it may seem passive, writing is the most powerful form of activism. And I believe that my writings reach out to people and places where I would never reach physically. We must never underestimate the power of words. Activism and writing are connected by the common bond of language.
History can testify that writers have the capacity to draw massive attention. We can look back and see that totalitarian governments have always imprisoned authors and writer after coming to power.
And when I am mad about an ableist or derogatory comments in a movie or an offensive plot on a television show, I don’t hesitate to write a review. Feedback and our inputs are important to the those who are producing content. So in this age of technology we can very easily pick our digital pens and revolutions can be blogged.
Writing does not always mean writing lengthy articles. One of the easiest ways to speak up is on social media. If we need to smash the system we must engage in it thoroughly and consistently. Repeated posts with proper hash tags can serve the purpose. Sharing important links, news pieces, and opportunities to act on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc can reach number of people.
There is no doubt that marching sends a strong message about our political agenda and the issues we care about. But how we march in our personal lives is also equally important.
Marches are also not the only way to communicate with politicians and public figures. Signing petitions or starting your own also has the power to effect change. To me activism also means to educate people in self-advocacy skills. To make people aware of their rights in the manner that is easily comprehensible to them. We can foster a sense of belonging for those who may otherwise remain on the margins of this social structure.
Activism can be varied and diverse, but in Disability Rights Movement the underlying universal themes are of inclusion, respect and dignity, which each one of us strives for.
Protesting on the streets isn’t the only way individuals can make noise. There are many ways to speak out and all of them have their own significance. We all can add something to the movement and play our own part.