Thursday, 17 November 2016

East is east and west is west, but their DRAs can - and will - meet

DRA, the group of Disability Rights Activists that I try to get together with on some of their jousts against our barrier-full environment, has many remarkable individuals in it, some, but not all of whom I have written about elsewhere in this blog. I intend to start correcting these omissions by devoting this post to Bhavna, a young woman with remarkable tenacity and positivity. She carries the burden of complications that comes with being a victim of cerebral palsy. And in her case, this is extrmely limiting. She cannot speak, and she needs the constant assistance of a caregiver - to push her in her wheelchair, clean her up when her condition causes her to drool, etc., etc.

Drooling is generally regarded as uncool, maybe even eliciting a `yecch' from the `beautiful people'. The evident distaste in others' faces is not too easy to stomach by one who has no control over this physiological problem, especially when the offender of high society behaviour standards is sensitive and perceptive. `Normal' people should include this observation in their book of etiquette rules as a step towards inclusivity. A little thought would reveal that nobody would deliberately drool!

In a similar situation, 9 of 10 people would just give up and live a life of dependence with little self-esteem. But not Bhavna. She does it by pointing with her eyes which are fortunately unaffected. A chart with letters as well as commonly used words is placed before her, and she points with her eyes and her mother (or other people, like Meenakshi, another member of DRA, who have subsequently learnt this art not unlike a game of charade) guesses what she is trying to say till she signals assent. By such a tortuous process, she communicates with the world; and with sufficient mastery to have earned a Bachelor's degree in Commerce and to run a boutique. (See http://www.thebetterindia.com/4655/tbi-inspirations-she-cannot-walk-talk-or-write-but-young-bhavna-botta-is-a-successful-entrepreneur/)

Recently, she started a magazine called Connect Special which, among other things, covered some innovative methods she had devised to sensitise the lay public regarding the need for, and advantages of, society learning to adopt inclusive attitudes and designs to enable people with disabilities to participate meaningfuly in society. These methods included getting people to gather on the Bessie Beach Road, which is closed to traffic on Sundays during 0630-0900, and participate in assorted activities designed to create awareness of PwD and their problems with all manners of barriers - physical, attitudinal, ... - that society throws at them.

On one of those weekends, when I had managed to cajole my driver to take me out there early on a Sunday morning rather than play with his daughter not yet a year old, a middle aged gentleman came up to me and told me he had come all the way from a far-flung suburb of Chennai because he was Bhavna's No. 1 fan. He diffidently asked me if I knew of Haben Girma. When I pleaded ignorance, he asked me to look her up on the net, and to make it a point to convince Bhavna  to make contact with her during her proposed trip to Bangalore in November. So I did look up Haben Girma on Google and understood what Martin was talking about.

If you didn't know about her, I should let you see for yourself (for instance, at https://habengirma.com/2014/05/04/haben-speaks-at-tedx-baltimore-2014/) how this deafblind young woman's mother managed to take her and her (also deaf blind) younger brother from Eritrea to Syria, thence to America where she became the first deafblind graduate of Harvard's law school and proceeded to be one of the more accomplished members of the  Disability Rights Advocates at Berkeley. Among the feathers in her cap is a visit to the White House at the behest of then President Obama.

So I sent an email encouraging Bhavna to write to Haben explaining her own involvement with the DRA in Chennai (the only variation being that the A of our DRA stands for Alliance) and inviting her to visit Chennai for a couple of days. (You never know when a highly connected friend might not be just what is needed!) And thus it came to pass that Haben Girma is visiting Chennai during November 26-28 and will be lecturing in IMSc Chennai (at 1700 hrs on the 26th on Equal Access for an Inclusive and Progressive Society) and at IIT Madras (on Access in Education at 1630 hrs on the 28th in CLT) and that I walk around with a glow of contentment at how Martin and I helped orchestrate the meeting of the shining lights of the DRAs in Chennai and Berkeley!

The mind boggles at the technological problems of Bhavna and Haben communicating with one another. But you know what! Only a fool will doubt their ability to have a long and meaningful conversation with results that would greatly enhance the move to empower people with disabilities.

(Let me end with the qualifier that all the credit for this meeting, planning for Haben's visit to Chennai, goes to Bhavna and Vidya Sagar; I am merely basking in the glow of expectation of this wonderful upcoming event. I am not claiming any credit other than telling Bhavna there was no harm trying. Haben responded positively to her less than 48 hours after my suggestion!)

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