Dreams are fragile. They need to be nurtured. And preserved. And we need to keep a tenacious hold on them as we go through the ups and downs of our lives. It is unfortunate to see dreams fall and crash when we stumble upon one of the numerous obstacles life has placed in our way.
But we can always draw inspiration from those who have faltered, yet kept a grip on their dreams. Arundhati is one of them.
Born with congenital cataract, she has lived all her life with low vision, but has always come out with flying colors. A bright student, a beautiful singer, a banker and now a writer – she consistently achieved whatever she set out to do. A versatile person, Arundhati is a commerce graduate who is also a trained vocalist and has a bachelor’s degree in Hindustani Classical Music (vocal). She also loves travelling, food and photography! She has overcome not only her low vision issues but also the low expectations that society seems to have from people with disabilities.
Arundhati was a few days old when a family friend visited them. He was a doctor and noticed something her parents had not – something didn’t seem right in the infant’s eyes. He suggested they show her to an ophthalmologist. They did and found out that Arundhati had a rare condition – congenital cataract that can cause blindness or vision problems.
Arundhati had her first eye surgery when she was 45 days old. Since then, she has had numerous surgeries, the last, just a month ago. Various issues with her eyes kept cropping up over the years requiring surgery and treatment, but she trudged on. Her parents were always with her, travelling from one hospital to another. They worked hard to ensure their daughter received the best possible treatment.
A parent’s job is a tough one and becomes even tougher when their child has special needs. A child with special needs struggles not only with the disability itself, but also with self-doubt and the low self-esteem that comes with that. And Arundhati’s parents left no stone unturned to instill confidence in her.
Mom and Dad – her guiding lights
Arundhati’s mother was her staunch supporter and not only acted as her eyes but also guided her through all her trials and tribulations. She never let her feel that she was lesser than the other kids. She helped her adapt to her disability but also told her that even though she was lacking in some functions, her other talents more than made up for them.
Her father also completely believed in her and encouraged all her endeavors. He could perhaps be credited with developing Arundhati’s interest in writing. Whenever he travelled, he got her books of all kinds and she had the largest and most diverse collection of books amongst her friends. He was also very happy when Arundhati started writing and supported her with all his heart.
Since she was a little girl, her parents were always by her side – helping her navigate the world. “If I could not read something, my mother would read it out to me. When I had to write about something, she would describe it to me in detail”, reminisces Arundhati. Often Arundhati found it difficult to write in a straight line because she couldn’t see the light lines in the notebooks. Her mother would painstakingly make lines in all her notebooks with a bright red pen, so that Arundhati could write without a problem.
And whenever Arundhati doubted herself, her mother was ready with her smile and encouragement. Whenever Arundhati worried about ever finding a job or getting married – her mother always told her not to worry. And she was right – Arundhati was the first among her friends to get a job!
Her absolute pride in Arundhati’s smallest achievements boosted her confidence and gave her a sense of accomplishment. She always told Arundhati that she should look at the brighter side – at the many talents she possessed and that she should never shy away from hard work. Hearing this, I was reminded of my father, who always told us to work to the best of our abilities – he never wished us best of luck. He would always say – “Best of You” before any exam or interview.
Unfortunately, her mom succumbed to cancer in 2019 and Arundhati is still coming to terms with it. But she laid a foundation for Arundhati on which she can always stand tall. And her father is beside her – helping her come to terms with the loss and supporting her.
Taking her disability in stride
As a child, Arundhati never felt that she had any disability. Of course, her parents were always around her to support, but so were other kids’ parents. It was only when she joined college that she realized that unlike her friends, she was dependent on her parents. However, with her mother’s help and her own hard work, she continued to do well in her studies.
Environment at her school was inclusive. Her teachers were supportive, and she never faced any exclusion amongst her peer group. She made good friends and had a good friend circle in both school and college.
In her second year, she decided to appear for banker’s exams, cleared them and landed a job with SBI Bank (the largest public sector bank in India). SBI was a good employer, she recalls, “they provided me with all required support, the right tools to enable her to function effectively – such as JAWS – a screen reader. The overall environment was also fairly supportive.
But something was missing.
Societal perceptions – tougher to handle than any disability
While she was doing well at her job, Arundhati would sometimes get uncomfortable with how people behaved around her. Often, people say things that are perhaps meant kindly but are actually patronizing. Right from suggesting the kind of treatment one should avail, to suggestions around what career may be best suited, Arundhati seems to have heard it all.
Given her talent in singing, many well-meaning people including her friends and colleagues from the bank suggested that she should take up a career in music. It would be ‘easy’ for her. No doubt they valued her singing talent, but they also sent a message that for a visually impaired person, singing might be the best choice. Some even went on to suggest that she could choose an easier career – like a teacher, where all she needed to do was to memorize a lesson and spew it out in class. (amazing how those people disparaged both teachers and people with vision impairment in one go!!!)
Then there were reactions to how she worked or looked. Arundhati has low vision – which means that while she can see partially, she needs to look very closely at words. Often, when people saw her leaning in very close to the monitor to read, or bending over the keyboard to type, they would make odd comments or ask her why she was doing that. Once at a salon, when Arundhati was reading a magazine, a woman asked her why she was reading like that and when she found out why, she had a string of ‘To Dos’ for Arundhati starting with watching less TV, to taking vitamin supplements and finally visiting a doctor!! (As if she wouldn’t have done that already!)
Life as a disabled person is not easy – and it is not only because of the disability itself. More often than not, it is more difficult to overcome the assumptions or the perceptions that people carry about disability or people with disabilities that make life more difficult. While in western countries there is comparatively more awareness and inclusion, in India we are still way behind.
Arundhati’s experiences show that as a society we are yet to understand disability and how to interact with or respond to people with disabilities. There is a gap in awareness as well as a lack of sensitivity around how to talk to or interact with people with disabilities. As Arundhati notes, “India is not disabled-friendly as far as accessibility, employment, social inclusion and education are concerned. But for a meaningful transformation, people’s attitude towards persons with disabilities (PWDs) needs to change. It would help to begin with evaluating some frustrating myths and stereotypes surrounding PWDs.”
Empathize. Don’t Sympathize.
If you are an able-bodied person reading this, more likely than not, you will benefit from some of the tips below, because knowingly or unknowingly we make the mistake of being insensitive.
- Do not assume – Don’t assume that just because a person is disabled, their life is unhappy or that they can’t do their job well or have good friends or be fashionable or have self respect – In short have a life. You get the point.
- Do not talk down – just because someone has a disability does not mean that they are beneath you or need your help or your intelligence or advice to figure out how best to live their lives.
- Ask, before offering anything – yes, it is good to help. There is no denying that – but before you start helping them, please ask. They might not need your help at all.
- Be respectful – be comfortable talking to a person with disability. Look at them while you talk. Do not address the caregiver if you are talking to them. Be patient – let them finish what they are trying to say. Do not show agitation or hurry to move on.
- Be mindful of the language – this one is confusing because you see all people with disabilities are not the same and might have different preferences. For instance, some people may be fine being called disabled – others may prefer differently abled while some others may find that condescending. So, it is best to ask and find out what they might prefer. For example, my son has special needs and I prefer saying that he is disabled. I personally do not like using specially abled for him. And it was really weird when someone I was talking to tried telling me how I should refer to my own son! So this one is difficult to navigate but the best is to get your cue from the person him/herself.
- They are like you and me – every person with a disability is a person first. Just like you and me. And like you and I have our own challenges – mental, physical, emotional, situational they have theirs. That doesn’t make them any different. They are learning to deal with their challenges just as we are dealing with ours.
Click here for more tips.
Coming back to Arundhati
I am sorry – writing about the insensitive behavior that Arundhati had to deal with, incensed me so much that I digressed into tips on becoming sensitive.
Cutting a long story short, in 2017, Arundhati decided to take the leap into the world of freelancing. The constant negativity got to her and eventually the ‘handicapped’ tag got to her. She didn’t feel excited going to work anymore.
While working as a banker she also wrote articles on the side, which soon enough became a passion. She decided to explore that full time. A riskier proposition but one that gave her the freedom to work at a pace she wanted and from wherever she pleased. Perhaps it also shielded her from the prying eyes of people. “At the end of the day, I decided I would rather do something that made me feel satisfied, happy, and where I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as ‘disabled,’ because behind the keyboard our infirmities don’t matter.”
Today Arundhati has almost 80-90 articles and two children’s picture books to her credit. She has written for a wide range of publications – from BBC, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, National Geographic Traveler to Mint Lounge, The Hindu and a number of parenting journals.
The last few years have not been kind to her – she lost her mother to cancer and a large part of the last two years were spent in caregiving which is a mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting process. Her mother was her support system, and she feels her absence sorely. Sometimes she wishes she had a sibling. Perhaps she wouldn’t have felt so lonely then. In her low moments, she feels that life has given her a raw deal – her disability and then loss of her mother.
I know that today, she feels a bit discouraged, a little lonely and misses her anchor, but I also know that there will be brighter days in the future, when she will bounce back to her confident self – ready to take on the world once again. I wish her the best of herself.
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