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Change the Mindset

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

As Stevie Wonder once said, ‘Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision’. People who live with disabilities often achieve far more than those who are ‘normal’, in society’s definition of the word

How do you react when you see a person who is living with disability—someone who is on a wheelchair, or who is unable to ‘see’ or ‘hear’ in the way most of us define these terms?

For those of us who are able-bodied, disability can be an awkward thing. What is the dividing line between reacting with too much sympathy and ending up being patronising, or pretending everything is all right and as a result seeming insensitive? Is it possible to have meaningful interactions with someone who seems to be ‘different’ from us?

As the singer Stevie Wonder once said, however: “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.” Time and again, people who live with disabilities have proved to the world that they can do a great deal, and perhaps much more, than those who are considered ‘normal’.

Stephen Hawking, the legendary physicist and author, who suffered from a slow-progressing motor neurone disease that left him paralysed, was a prime example of this. “It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability,” he had remarked, adding with characteristic understatement, “One has to get on with life and I haven’t done badly.”

At the closing ceremony of the 12th Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang in March, a week after Hawking passed away, the president of the Pyeongchang organising committee, Lee Hee-beom, repeated another statement by Hawking—“however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

The Paralympic Games have proved this repeatedly; this major international multi-sport event offers opportunities to athletes with a range of disabilities, including impaired muscle power, vision impairment, and intellectual impairment. The ceremony this year ended with a breath-taking performance by South Korean Yeaji Kim, a pianist who has been  has been blind since birth, and who has developed a revolutionary ‘tactile stave notation’ system to make reading music easier for blind people.

India is also full of inspiring stories of people who have conquered disability and proved that they are capable of so much more than some of us would like to believe. When Malini Chib was born, the doctors said that she would not survive for more than 72 hours, and if she did, she would be a vegetable. Malini, who suffers from cerebral palsy, went on to write One Little Finger, a 50,000 word memoir with her left index finger; she has received a national award for being a role model. The book speaks of her battle against stigma, stereotypes and prejudice, her will to succeed, and her search for an identity in a world that sees her as nothing more than ‘disabled’. The film Margarita with a Straw, starring Kalki Koechlin, is based on her life.

According to the World Bank, India has some 40 to 80 million persons with disability. In the years to come, the number of disabled people in India is expected to rise sharply as age-related disabilities grow and traffic accidents increase.

While there is a growing disability rights movement, low literacy, few jobs and widespread social stigma make disabled people among the most excluded in India. The discrimination begins in childhood and spirals into a lifelong disadvantage; children with disabilities are less likely to go to school, and often end up unemployed as adults. World Bank points out that with better education and more access to jobs, people with disabilities can become an integral part of society, as well as help generate higher economic growth that will benefit the country as a whole.

Disability rights activist Javed Abidi, who recently passed away, strongly advocated the tenet of ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’. He played a major role in reshaping India’s disability laws into the progressive Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act that was passed by Parliament in December 2016. Under this, the definition of disability has been expanded, and the bill also provides several rights, such as access to hospitals, transport and public buildings.

As happens with many situations in India, however, while laws are strong, mind-sets take years to change. The first step towards dealing with disability is recognising that it doesn’t need to be invisible.

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