Author: Savitri Grover
He visited us each summer. I thoroughly enjoyed his company, spending time with him on recreational activities. Sitting under the Neem tree on our verandah, he helped me with my summer homework. While I loved having my grandfather over, I wonder how much effort it was for him to travel from the mountains of Nepal with limited roadways to come to the border and travel two more days by bus to Delhi.
If you are wondering why I might be thinking so much about his trip is because he was missing limbs below-knees on both legs. While I never did get to the actual cause of limb loss, I do remember him, walking with crutches in his ankle-high boots worn backward to fit the remaining limbs. As a child, I had a lot of questions, but we never did talk about disabilities. I often sensed a discomfort among people when they found themselves with a person with visible disabilities like my grandfather. One emotion I always noticed was sympathy in their eyes. I still wonder why we are uncomfortable about discussion on disabilities.
As a child, I do not remember seeing wheelchairs much outside I of the movies or hospitals, hence I never thought much about why he did not use one. As a child, I accepted this simple explanation of why I never thought about wheelchairs, but of course it is more complicated.
Access to mobility devices was and still is an issue in India and many countries around the world. However, access does not mean access to devices only. It also translates into structural changes which include simple things such as upgraded building codes with accessible ramps and toilets. So going back to thinking about a wheelchair for my grandfather, given that there was limited access to paved roads, transportation combined with challenging terrain (Nepal), it would have been dangerous for him to use one.
While now I understand the reasons, the reality hasn’t changed much. The lack of access, not just the wheelchair or other mobility devices still exists. This takes me to my next question about why things did not change much? The answer will need me to introduce you to another person whom I met in 2019 and was inspired by. Professor Anita Ghai, author, academician, an ardent advocate of disability rights & female rights in India, and an amazing person.
During one of her talks, she mentioned that people without any disability are “Temporarily able bodies” which is a harsh truth that we do not often think about. We live in a world where so much is unpredictable and a lot is based on our actions. A car accident, adventure activities, stress or just getting old can cause some level of disability, sometimes visible and other times invisible. So I will ask the question again: Why don’t we feel comfortable talking about disabilities? Growing up in a rich culture where many life events are looked through the lens of religions, acquiring disabilities, or born with one is no exception. I have seen it as a child and continue witnessing it while out with another family member with disability.
So how do we bring about change? Well, that will take a while and a lot of baby steps. With personal experience and listening to experts, the answer is long and complicated but starts with communication. A lot of this communication needs to be focused on cultural ideologies. Introducing disabilities studies in the school curriculum to understand and accept is the first step Starting this discussion at a young age will shape the future attitude of society. Yes, it’s a long game, but all change needs time and action. Parallel steps can focus on the other issues of creating accessible infrastructure. A diverse country such as India, where every state has unique culture and geography, can still unify in the work at a social and political level to define the identity of a person not by their disability but by the ability of others to enable them.