The March of India: Living in the Shadow of a Disability

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Erin Kelly, a writer with cerebral palsy, explores the impact of the thousands of disabled Indians who protested in New Delhi for the right to be counted as equal.


“We are pushed into the margins of society. People won’t give us jobs, even our own families consider us a burden—and this is especially so in rural areas.”

One might expect this to come from a small business owner or a struggling entrepreneur in the States rather than from a disabled man fighting for his rights—and those of others—halfway around the world.

According to a recent article published by Channel News Asia, Mohammed Umar was one of the thousands of disabled people in India who protested in New Delhi earlier this month—demanding legislation of a bill that would grant the demographic its long-awaited rights to equality.

The protest materialized as a result of India’s increasingly disturbing, unfair treatment of its estimated 90 million people with a disability. Numerous reports have cited claims of abuse, rape, and denial of basic human rights and even death. The bill, modeled after The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, highlights the right to education and employment, and reportedly would replace another previously signed into law in 1995.

The February 3rd article also reported that Umar, a resident of Uttar Pradesh state, contracted polio at the age of five and has been forced to use crutches ever since. Many others who gathered on sidewalks and streets waved signs that read, “Disabled in peril” and “We want our rights, not your charity.”

Among those who took part was Zorin Singha, president of The National Association of the Deaf, who commented on his experiences with India’s education system with regard to his own disability.

“Basically, my school taught me nothing at all. The school had no teachers for deaf students and there were no alternatives. They just kept trying to force me to speak, even though they knew I was deaf,” he said.

If passed, the bill that Singha and his fellow Indians want legislation for would grant teachers the proper training to meet the needs of deaf students in India. It would also hold private companies—such as schools and other educational institutions—responsible for creating a “disabled-friendly” environment for employees and visitors.

This is something Pratyush Nalam, a young man in a wheelchair currently attending college in Mumbai, struggled to find. However, with 126 other bills awaiting review in the Indian parliament—and no new laws in place—the country’s disabled population may be left in the dark for many more years to come.

As someone with a disability myself, the scope of this entire scene is almost impossible to understand or digest. There’s a certain level of uncertainty that comes with having a disability, but I’ve never feared for my own life simply because I’m in a wheelchair.

However, the fact this is happening shakes me to my core. It makes me ask myself, ‘Where’s the justice in this situation?’

I think it would be hard to find any, given India’s horrific past regarding the disabled. If there is indeed justice to be served in this recent resurgence of violence, why didn’t the Indian parliament take action sooner—perhaps to try to prevent this from spiraling out of control to the point of physical violence?

There’s more than a ten-year gap in between the signing of the bill passed in 1995 and the one thousands of Indians are pushing for right now. With a statistic like that, one has to wonder how many people were abused, beaten or killed in those ten years waiting for some sign of justice. Moreover, how many more innocent lives have to be shattered before India makes an attempt to rise from this tragedy?

I think there are certain equations that you just can’t take yourself out of, even if they have nothing to do with you. For me, this is one of them.

One of my best friends, whom I’ve known for almost ten years, is from India. I’ve come to know him and his family as some of the most caring, compassionate people in all walks of life.

It’s unfathomable to me that he came from that world of violence, and that he might not be the great husband, brother and best friend he is today if he hadn’t made the choices he made early in his life.

I’d like to think that I’ve taught him the right way of looking at someone with a disability, the same way he’s taught me to look at someone of a different culture. In fact, I found myself having to pause several times while doing research for this story, because what I read didn’t match what I now know about the capacities of the human soul.

That doesn’t change the fact that I know violence exists, however. It only changes the way I view it.

I find it ironic and scary that the article that broke news of this protest never mentioned what came out of it. What happened—or will happen to those thousands of people who simply want the right to be human?

The harsh reality of all this is while India waits for its justice, the world may never get to see the budding of the next great scientist, inventor, architect or writer.

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About Erin Kelly

Erin M. Kelly is a columnist, writer, and freelance editor with Cerebral Palsy who wants to be recognized for her work rather than her disability. She’s a 2009 graduate of Penn State Altoona, where she majored in Letters, Arts and Sciences. During her senior year, she was hired as a columnist for The Altoona Mirror, the daily newspaper in Altoona, PA. Her column entitled, “The View From Here,” runs monthly and addresses in a light-hearted, humorous manner the challenges she faces daily. Writing is her window to the world and gives her the opportunity to bring what’s inside out.

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