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Op-Ed

No more exclusion: Make a start with Hornbill Festival

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By EMN Updated: Oct 16, 2013 8:02 pm
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Diethono Nakhro

MAGNIFICENt, stunning, exciting, spectacular – there are apparently not enough superlatives to describe Nagaland’s grand annual tourist event called the Hornbill Festival, the Festival of Festivals. It may have its share of critics and detractors, but I hear that it has become such a huge attraction and success that it has been decreed that the festival will now be a ten-day affair from the 2013 edition onwards. As a proud Naga, I do rejoice when I hear such positive news which, if I may say so, is few and far between these days. But you will have to excuse me if I don’t have an opinion to offer since I have never had the pleasure of experiencing the sights and sounds and tastes of this great festival. You see, I’m a member of a group of people that our Naga society likes to pretend does not exist.I am a person with a disability. Let me repeat that – I am a person with a disability, but not a disabled person. I emphasise this because this is the mindset that I have had to battle daily since I acquired my disability in a car accident nearly eight years ago – that having a ‘disability’ is equal to being ‘less able’ or ‘unable’. I fought back from a possible complete quadriplegic situation and tossed off my wheelchair along the way only to discover that the world I have to live and work in is going to continually define me by the mobility impairment that I am left with. And it is this mindset that disables me rather than my physical impairment. I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way. This world we live in disables me by thinking and treating me like I am ‘unable’ just because I have a mobility impairment.

DISABILITY IS A SOCIAL ISSUE
Please bear with a brief discourse on the disability issue. There are two distinct models of disability: (i) The medical model and (ii) The social model.
According to the medical model of disability, ‘disability’ is a health condition dealt with by medical professionals. People with disability are thought to be different to ‘what is normal’ or, in other words, considered ‘abnormal’. ‘Disability’ is seen to be a problem of the individual. The medical model sees a person with disability as being in need of being fixed or cured. From this point of view, disability is a tragedy and people with disability are to be pitied. The medical model of disability is all about what a person cannot do and cannot be.
The social model sees ‘disability’ as the result of the interaction between people living with impairments and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication and social barriers. It therefore carries the implication that the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment must change to enable people living with impairments to participate in society on an equal basis with others.
A social model perspective does not deny the reality of impairment nor its impact on the individual. However, it does challenge the physical, attitudinal, communication and social environment to accommodate impairment as an expected incident of human diversity. The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others.
(Ref: http://www.pwd.org.au/)

UNCRPD: The social model of disability is now the internationally recognised way to view and address ‘disability’. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) 2006 marks the official paradigm shift in attitudes towards people with disability and approaches to disability concerns. People with disability are not ‘objects’ of charity, medical treatment and social protection but ‘subjects’ with rights, capable of claiming those rights, able to make decisions for their own lives based on their free and informed consent and be active members of society.
It may be mentioned here that India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Disability Convention) in October 2007. Unfortunately, as we are all aware, appending your consent to a document or laying down a law does not guarantee its implementation nor does it ensure a change in collective mindset.

NAGALAND
To focus on Nagaland, the social model of disability is still far beyond the imagination of our law makers and the society at large. Even many individuals and groups purportedly working for the welfare of persons with disabilities have scant understanding at best. If I may be blunt, persons with disabilities are huge fund generators for a large group of people. Let me be clear here that I am not painting all in the field with the same brush. There are a genuine few who are doing excellent work despite the obstacles, including financial constraints. But it is a fact that for every genuine person, there are always several other individuals and groups with vested interests.
In Nagaland, I, as a person with disability, live in a world where I am made ‘disabled’, a world where I am prevented from functioning. Since we are all so web-savvy these days, let me take the example of the internet connection in a computer. When you turn it off, it says that the connection has been ‘disabled’. Does this mean that the internet service has suddenly broken down or become unable to perform? Certainly not. It just means that it has been prevented from functioning by an external force. This is similar to the way I am disabled by the environment and the attitudes around me.
I have a disability, and, believe me, I’ll be the first one to admit my physical limitations which are quite obvious. But that does not make me ‘less able’ than the ‘normal’ person next to me. In fact, it may just turn out that I am ten times more able in all aspects except in my physical movement capabilities. However, despite my ability, I am eventually rendered disabled because of inaccessibility and negative attitudes which effectively ensure that there are few things I can do and even less places I can go to or events that I can participate in. I am disabled by long flights of stairs, uneven and congested areas, lack of toilet amenities……in other words, zero access everywhere. I am disabled by the assumptions and preconceived prejudicial notions about persons with disabilities – conclusions about what I cannot do and places I cannot go to are constantly made by able-bodied persons without ever consulting me. I am able but ultimately I become disabled by the environment and the attitudes of the people around me.
For Naga society in general, persons with disabilities continue to be objects of charity needing welfare assistance to survive. The focus remains on what a person cannot do rather than what he or she can do. To be precise, we still follow the medical model, and this is reflected in people’s attitudes and associated negative outcomes. Persons with disabilities are viewed as ‘different’ from ‘normal’ people, as a class of people incapable of being fully participating citizens. Hence, all areas of life remain inaccessible to those who have various kinds of disabilities.
Government offices (including the Civil Secretariat), schools, hospitals, churches, commercial buildings and all public places are inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Making our roads and public transport (buses, taxis) accessible and disabled-friendly do not even come under the realm of consideration. Provisions for those with disabilities to participate are never part of the scheme of things in the numerous events, programmes and celebrations that are routinely observed, state sponsored or otherwise.
All these stem from a mindset that says that persons with disabilities are a different species incapable of doing what ‘normal’ people do. Because I have a disability I am considered incapable of functioning in an ‘able’ world, incapable of socialising, incapable of actually living a real life. Because I have a disability, I am supposed to be an asexual being incapable of experiencing emotions and feelings as normal people do.
What all these boil down to is that perfectly capable and superbly intelligent persons with disabilities exist in isolation and loneliness unable to live up to their potential or even any kind of social life purely because of the physical and attitudinal barriers that our society shut them out with.

AN INCLUSIVE HORNBILL FEST
To come back to what I started with, I do love being regaled with all the exciting happenings surrounding our famous Hornbill Festival. But to be honest, I would rather be experiencing the joys of it myself than only getting a second-hand report of it from others who’ve been there and done that.
Let me say here that it would be incorrect to say that I have never been to the Hornbill Festival. Last year, 2012, I had the pleasure of finally setting foot into the main venue, Kisama Heritage Village, for the first time when I was invited to speak at a Disability Day programme on Dec 3 which was held at the Children’s Park. I arrived on time only to find that the entrance to the ground was blocked by ticket counters leaving only a narrow opening for people to walk through. Had the road leading down to the venue been good and smooth it would have been perfectly alright to walk that short distance. However, it was steep and rough and covered with free rolling sharp stones and pebbles. For a person like me on a walker, it was an unbelievably torturous walk down with my unstable feet twisting and slipping even as the two persons accompanying me struggled to hold and keep me steady. We finally reached the bottom all hot and sweaty only to find that the programme was being held in a congested corner of the ground with barely any room to move. And, of course, toilet provisions were out of the question though the programme was designed to be quite a lengthy affair. It also involved a large group of differently-abled children, I might add. Frankly, I was amazed that such an absolutely unfriendly venue had been chosen to hold a programme where persons with disabilities were expected to come and participate. I was somehow able to determinedly struggle and negotiate my way to my seat without the ultimate humiliation of being bodily carried by someone, but what about wheelchair users and others with worse mobility impairments or other disabilities that need a reasonably even space and enough room to move around? It would have been impossible for some to reach their seats without being stripped of all their dignity.
After the programme was over, I visited the Tourism Dept centre at the invitation of a dear friend which luckily had a toilet that I could use. The building was all stairs, of course, which I negotiated at a snail’s pace with plenty of assistance, enjoyed a hot cup of coffee and cakes in their lounge, and then battled another flight of stairs till I was standing on their balcony overlooking the performance arena. From there, I was able to get a glimpse of tiny dancing figures. Therefore, strictly speaking, I cannot say that I’ve never seen anything of the festival. But that was the extent of my Hornbill experience revolving around what I presume to be the entrance area of the Heritage Village. There was not even the slightest question of attempting to visit the many stalls or any of the buzzing activities going on. I wouldn’t have been able to get too far.
My beautiful Nagaland has miles to go before it comes even remotely close to being an inclusive society. There’s so much to do that sometimes one does not even know where to begin. But begin we must and what better place to make a start than at the annual ‘Festival of Festivals’ extravaganza, particularly in this 50th year anniversary of our statehood? Make the currently exclusive Hornbill Festival an accessible inclusive event that can be experienced and enjoyed by one and all. Famous as it may have become, only when local citizens and tourists with disabilities can participate on an equal footing will it become a truly great event that we can rightfully be proud of.

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By EMN Updated: Oct 16, 2013 8:02:24 pm