Sense and Sensitivity
Stereotyping and talking down to people with disabilities can be hurtful and insulting. Step away—don’t be a blunderbuss
"You remember Rohit*? I had a big crush on him," I tell Richa*, my classmate from school. We were meeting after five years, at our common friend’s wedding reception.
“You had a crush!?” Richa exclaimed in disbelief.
A similar conversation with another friend, a few weeks later, made me realize that my low vision (a form of partial visual impairment) had, perhaps, made them feel that I wasn’t capable of being attracted to people. Most of my friends wouldn’t discuss their boyfriends or relationships with me even when we were in college. Initially, I had assumed that my classmates found me boring or that they thought of me as being too sensitive and, hence, to be treated with caution.
I was born with bilateral congenital cataracts. I went through multiple eye surgeries ever since I was a 45-day-old baby, but my doctors could retain my vision only partially. My low vision requires me to read print from up close.
I grew up in an inclusive environment. My teachers were caring and affectionate, and at home my mother would draw lines with a red sketch pen over ruled notebooks to make the lines more visible to me.
In 2010, I joined a leading public sector bank as an associate. While most people were encouraging, I was often at the receiving end of disparaging comments such as: “Banking is not for you. It was different if you were a music teacher or something.” “Try to get a government job. There is not much work there, you won’t feel any stress.” “Get into a school or college. You only need to memorize the daily lessons and blurt them out in front of the class.”
When I quit my job and started working as a freelance journalist and children’s writer, the same people were shocked again, because banking is considered a secure career and they thought that I was foolish to leave it. What else could a visually impaired girl do?
During my formative years, I have seen well-meaning people sympathize with me, call me ‘inspiring’ and offer voluntary advice—ranging from the benefits of eating fish or consulting an astrologer to wearing gemstones and going to a temple or dargah to pray. There were people wondering, with great concern, how difficult my life must be. All well-meaning, but also tonally deaf (sorry, couldn’t help it).
Life isn’t too different for my friends with disabilities. India is not disabled-friendly as far as accessibility, employment, social inclusion and education are concerned. But for a meaningful transformation, people’s attitude towards persons with disabilities (PWDs) needs to change. It would help to begin with evaluating some frustrating myths and stereotypes surrounding PWDs.
PWDs are always sad and cannot enjoy life. PWDs are often seen as deserving an able-bodied person’s pity. While some sympathy is normal, you need to focus on their abilities, show empathy and be sensitive. “Our mindset is such that when we see a person with a disability, we assume that she is good for nothing; that she cannot have a decent lifestyle and can never be happy or have good friends. All of which, of course, is false,” says Pratishtha Deveshwar, a 20-year-old student from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. In 2011, Deveshwar had an accident, which left her lower body paralyzed.
Deveshwar has been actively working to make her college accessible to PWDs. She tells me that whenever she speaks about the issue publicly, she often has the widest smile in the auditorium. “I’m not unhappy all the time just because I am in a wheelchair.” Deveshwar finds joy in the mundane. “I love reading, writing, cooking and doing household chores,” she says. She is especially grateful about living in a big city like Delhi. “Back home in Hoshiarpur in Punjab, things were inaccessible to me. But here, I have the freedom to go out for coffee with my friends.”
PWDs are not interested in romantic relationships. People assume that a PWD must be single or married to another PWD. “Radhakrishna and I were friends since childhood. He never treated me differently on account of my visual impairment even back then. He respects my feelings and believes in my abilities,” says Dr Jyothsna Phanija, 29, an assistant professor of English at Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College, Delhi University. Her husband, however, often encounters comments like, “Hats off to you. You made such a huge sacrifice!” or “You are like God on earth”. “He has learnt to take them in ‘good humour’ though,” says Phanija.
PWDs cannot be fashionable. “The way we dress is important for our self-confidence and claiming an identity against a society which often tries to tell us what we are,” says Dr Malvika Iyer, who survived a bomb blast in 2002 but lost both her hands. She was just 13 years old then.
Today, she is a motivational speaker, disability rights activist and has been a model for accessible fashion. She won the Nari Shakti Puraskar for her outstanding contribution to women’s empowerment from the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, in 2018. “The considerations needed when it comes to clothing when you are differently abled are as diverse as the impairments themselves, and so they need to be functional while enhancing the confidence of a person. Simple adjustments like replacing buttons and zippers with Velcro fasteners for people with mobi-lity restrictions help,” she adds.
PWDs are the world’s largest minority, and yet we might find it uncomfortable to converse with them and offer genuine help. Here’s what you can do differently.
Ask, don’t assume. “Approach a PWD just like any other person. Don’t colour your imagination with preconceived notions,” says Ankit Rajiv Jindal, founder of Friends for Inclusion, a start-up that creates technological solutions for the disabled. Don’t worry that you will end up hurting a PWD as long as you are courteous and respectful and there’s a context to ask about their disability.
Always ask the person if they need help. Do not grab someone’s hand or try to give directions without first checking.
Dr Jyothsna Phanija
Be respectful. If you meet someone who stutters or is slow in responding due to a physical condition such as speech impairment or cerebral palsy, do not try to complete their sentences. Be patient and respectful. Speak to the person directly; do not speak to their companion or interpreter.
PWDs work hard to achieve success in life just like their able-bodied peers. It is wrong to assume that their success is the result of a handout. “People think that we get jobs because we have reservations and not because we are capable,” Phanija says.
Make the effort. The hearing-impaired will be integrated with society if all of us know basic sign language, which can be easily learnt online or through sign language interpreters.
Do not assume that all deaf people are also mute. “If you speak to them, maintain eye contact since the deaf rely heavily on non-verbal cues to communicate. If they are not able to lip-read, instead of speaking louder (which does not benefit them), take out a paper and pen and write out what you want to say,” advises Aqil Chinoy, the hearing-impaired founder of Inspiralive, a website that gives opportunities to hearing-impaired professionals and freelancers.
A physical disability is another form of diversity in nature. It can be congenital or may develop later due to an illness or accident—a challenge like any other. Today, technology has empowered PWDs to lead a life of independence. But for them to also be able to lead their lives with dignity, we need to work harder towards social inclusion.
Here are some multi-city institutions and companies that work towards empowering PWDs:
- EnAble India
- Mitra Jyothi
- Saksham Trust
- Deaf Leaders Foundation
- Deaf EnAbled Foundation
- Planet Abled
These books will enable children to appreciate differences:
- Manya Learns to Roar by Shruthi Rao
- Kittu’s Very Mad Day by Harshikaa Udasi
- Dhanak: Rainbow by Anushka Ravishankar and Nagesh Kukunoor
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio
*Names changed to protect privacy