Health

On Disability Rights: A Letter, With Love From an ‘Abnormal’ Icon

Ultimately we are disabled by the inaccessible environment and poor attitudes that surround us, not the functional limitations of our disabilities, writes one of Nagaland’s leading voices for disability rights.

A girl enjoying her right to a free education. Credit: UN/Arup Ghosh/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A girl enjoying her right to a free education. Credit: UN/Arup Ghosh/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I was recently asked to be an ambassador for the rights of voters with disabilities in Nagaland. After some discussion, I accepted the offer as I felt that it was a great opportunity to educate and create some much-needed awareness on disability.

Anyway, on National Voters Day on January 25 last month I attended my first event as an ‘icon’, as the ambassadors are called, where I got a few minutes to say my piece. Apparently it was the first programme involving ambassadors  to be held in this cycle since an official made a round of complicated introductions. I found out that two of us had been appointed as State Election Icons along with several other District Icons.

The official began the introductions with a brief explanation of the icons’ role. Then he went on to describe the different categories and said that this time around there were two state icons, instead of only one. “One is normal,” he said, “and the other is…” He trailed off mumbling unintelligibly. He appeared to have caught himself before he actually uttered the word, but it was clear what he was going to say – one is ‘normal’ while the other is ‘abnormal’.

No, I was not shocked because this is the kind of mindset that we’re still living with – I have a disability, I’m in a wheelchair, I’m different and therefore I’m ‘abnormal’.  It’s a mindset that says that people with disabilities are a different species of humans, 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.

Even in this day and age, the dominant attitude in our society is that individuals with disabilities are ‘abnormal’ and incapable of participating in or contributing to society. They are perceived as deserving only of one’s pity and charity.

Whenever I meet anyone new, you can be sure that more often than not I’m greeted with words like – “Oh so sad, you must be really suffering”, “You poor thing”, or “What a struggle it must be for you” or something of that sort. Just because my journey is different, I’m considered an object of pity. I know that most people mean well, but let me tell you that it does not make it less annoying to constantly hear people commiserating with your supposedly woeful situation.

So, let me put it straight for everyone’s information – No, I’m not living in a perpetual state of suffering. I have my ups and downs health-wise and mood-wise like ‘normal’ people. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, there are some things that you ‘normal’ people do that I can’t do, but I’ve improvised, learned to do them differently and have overcome them quite handily, so believe me, my life is not a constant struggle to survive. In fact, the challenges have made me a stronger and smarter person since I had to figure out how to get around them. You should be so lucky!

You can also rest assured that I’m not sitting around in a great big depression wallowing in self pity and cursing my misfortune. Certainly, the appalling conditions in our state do not make things easy, but don’t worry, I may be ‘abnormal’ to you but I live a ‘normal’ life. I’m independent, I earn my own living doing work that I love and I live an active life and do my own thing just as you ‘normal’ people do. I travel and I also party and have fun. OMG, a disabled person socialising and enjoying herself! Unbelievable, right? I bet I can out-party the heck out of any of you!

Surprise, surprise – I have a disability but my life does not suck. I feel great to be alive; I’m happy and I love my ‘abnormal’ life. So, bottom line – don’t waste your pity on me!

Now that is not to say that I’m not grateful to all those trying to be supportive. I understand that you’re doing it the best way you know how and I do appreciate it. I’m just saying that pity is not the way to go about it. Of course, I need and want help sometimes and most times I just wish someone would give a real damn about the real issues faced by people with disabilities in our state. But pity? Nope.

If you really want to help and support, may I suggest the following? Talk to people living with disabilities and get to know them, find out the problems and difficulties they face. I’m going to bet that in most cases you’re going to discover that their disabilities are not the real problems; instead the real problems they face are the barriers all around them, be it physical or attitudinal. Indeed, we certainly have some functional limitations due to our disabilities but these limitations do not disable us; we are able but ultimately we are disabled by the inaccessible environment and poor attitudes that surround us.

Support us by standing with us in our fight for equal opportunity and treatment. Educate yourself and educate others on disability and help us change the way our society views and deals with disabilities as a whole. That is the best support you can give us!

Diethono Nakhro is a leading voice for disability rights in Nagaland. She is also a member of the National Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (NCRPD).fl