Am I handicapped… or are you?
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the past few years I have been called and referred to as ‘handicapped’ more times than I care to count – that too most often by so-called “enlightened and educated” persons. Yes, a spinal injury from a car wreck some seven years ago has left me partially dependent. In fact, I was fully paralysed neck down and completely dependent initially, but I fought back and after a long hard journey I am where I am – still needing some assistance but quite able and capable. I don’t feel disabled in any way nor do I consider myself handicapped by my mobility impairment. So, why do you insist on branding me as an incomplete and helpless human being?Okay, personally, I really don’t care however I am labelled. Call me whatever you want. But what is not acceptable is the mindset that accompanies the labelling which is reflected in the larger scheme of things whereby persons with disability are left totally excluded and isolated. Our society remains extremely narrow-minded and prejudiced towards those with different abilities.
Traditionally, the most positive response that society has been able to muster towards persons with disability has been pity, reducing them to passive objects of charity, and this mindset continues to this day. Persons with disability are viewed as helpless and useless beings incapable of being productive members of society and deserving only of welfare assistance. This, in turn, perpetuates their dependency and impedes the possibilities of their achieving a life of self-worth and relative self-reliance. Negative societal attitude is the main factor why persons with disability continue to live a life of indignity and complete neglect, unable to explore or live up to their potential.
Pause a moment and think – how many persons with disability do you encounter in schools, playgrounds, streets, markets, offices, churches, public events, in family celebrations? I think your answer would be “rarely.” And when you do, you would usually see them being carried, pushed and pulled like animals, stripped of all their dignity and reduced to exhibition items for curious eyes.
For the differently-abled, the world is beyond reach. The most ordinary of aspirations—to go to school, work the fields, worship in church, shop for vegetables or clothes, have a fun day out with friends, enjoy an entertainment show, get married and so on and so forth—are things they can only dream of but never be able to do. And no, it is not because they can’t, but simply because society hampers them with a prejudiced mindset that results in physical and social barriers all around.
Let us take a look at some of our most common public spaces, starting with our churches, denomination no bar. We may boast of the biggest in North East or the country or even beyond, but how many members with disability can the churches count among their congregation? Do you think it’s because they do not want to go to church and worship? Or is it because you forgot to make it accessible to them while you were building your fancy church or didn’t think it necessary to create more understanding on disability among your ‘normal’ members?
It may offend some sensibilities, but I must say that our churches have miserably failed to uphold the rights of persons with disability – the right to worship and be part of the church congregation if nothing else. Many more churches are surely being built or will be built in the near future. I’d request the church leaders to check their building plans to see whether they have included their ‘handicapped’ and ‘abnormal’ members as possible worshipers in their church.
Also, I hope it would not be considered unfair if I ask you to ponder over your social responsibility to use your powerful voice towards changing negative societal attitudes on disability.
Then we have our government buildings and offices. The old office buildings were obviously not disabled-friendly as they had come up during times when rights of persons with disability were beyond imagination. Any such outdated building still in use can perhaps be excused.
However, most of these old office buildings have been discarded or dismantled and replaced with swanky new structures in the last few years. Built with crores of rupees, we find that none of these new buildings have incorporated even basic accessibility features into their ultra designs. Not to speak of working in them, persons with disability cannot even visit them.
On a side note, may I ask the politicians and government officials to stop throwing around random platitudes like “We are all God’s children,” “We are all equal in the eyes of God,” etc, in their speeches on disability. Only when you walk in the shoes of a person with disability will you realise how condescending such meaningless phrases are in the face of the absolute discriminatory situation that exists.
Now, what about our wonderful schools? There’s much discussed about our poor education system and classroom inadequacies often. Agreed that there are a thousand and more things that need to change in our schooling system, but I would say you have much to be thankful for as your children have access to what we have presently.
Give a thought to our children with special needs and count the number of schools in the State that have provided an enabling environment for them to go and join their peers. A child with disability is destined to go through his or her life with no chance of ever learning or experiencing the things that their so-called ‘normal’ fellow brothers and sisters take for granted.
The barriers extend to all areas – hospitals, shopping complexes and all other public places. In hospitals, the ramps provided are mainly for their own convenience (to wheel their gurneys) rather than for patients with disability. Numerous private hospitals and nursing homes have mushroomed across the State. They boast of the latest equipments and technology, but very few persons with disability can avail of these facilities due to the unfriendly and inaccessible environment. Toilets for persons with disability are quite unknown in any hospital or any other public place.
Meanwhile, our urban landscape is rapidly changing. The low, tin-roofed single or double storey hill type buildings have now been replaced by ultra modern multiple storey buildings housing shopping complexes, conference halls, recreation rooms, etc. In the absence of any enforcement of building laws, if any, no public/commercial building in our towns, even in the State capital Kohima, is accessible to those with disability.
With regard to the various events, programmes and celebrations that are routinely observed, state sponsored or otherwise, provisions for persons with disability to participate are yet to come under the realm of consideration.
Now you know why you rarely see people ‘like us’ in public spaces and gatherings. It’s because of the nearly insurmountable physical and social barriers that we confront at every step. It’s like our society has decided that persons with disability have no right or need to live any kind of life; that they’re only fit to be tucked away within the four walls of a room or a corner of the house.
Do you think that people with disability have no desires or dreams or interests as ‘normal’ people do? That they don’t have similar yearnings as you to socialise, celebrate, catch the wind on their faces, worship in church, learn, work and achieve?
They are full individual human beings just like anyone else with independent personalities, dreams, aspirations, interests, skills and potential. They have the right, as well as the potential, to lead fulfilled, productive and happy lives with dignity and relative self-reliance, just as much as anyone else.
There is no argument that persons with disability have some limitations, physical or otherwise. However, they are limited not so much by these limitations but more by the way society views and treats them. Why don’t you, for a change, look at what they can do rather than focussing only on what they cannot do? I can assure you, you will be amazed.
Yes, I may be reliant on others for many of my everyday functions and perhaps my slow shuffle will slow you down if you’re in a hurry. I cannot run a race for sure. But if there’s one thing I cannot do, there are two other things I know I can do and I do it. There are a hundred and one more things I desire and plan to do and discover before I hang up my boots.
So the question I ask, am I handicapped…..or are you by your closed and prejudiced mindset? I am able and very capable, and, most importantly, willing. Please don’t hamper me with your handicapped and un-accepting attitude.