Finding love in an ableist world | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis

Gargi Gupta

In a society where the dice is heavily loaded against them, the differently-abled find that the insensitivity and ignorance they battle daily get amplified when it comes to romance and marriage. Gargi Gupta gets a sense of the challenges they face and how they cope

Preeti Monga was just six years old when she lost her vision. What followed next is a story more or less common to most differently-abled people in India – or used to be back in the 1960s, when Monga was growing up in Amritsar. She was chucked out of school in class VIII, and married off at 23 – "’Arrey, hamare baad koi toh ho isko dekhne wala (There should at least be someone to look after her after us),’ my parents thought," says Monga.

Except that it didn’t happen that way; her husband turned out to be abusive and a compulsive liar. That would have stumped many a woman, especially a visually-challenged one with two children. Not Monga. She got back to school, sat for the class X board exams via open school, learnt aerobics and started her own classes. Then, after becoming economically self-reliant, she filed for a divorce. "But I didn’t want to spend my life alone. I wanted romance, I wanted a partner," she says with disarming candour. And so, she proposed to a colleague she liked. Monga, at the time, was sales manager with a pickle brand. "He was ten years younger and said no. So I asked him again and again every day for 22 days until he said yes," she laughs. "When you want something, you should be ready to go for it. There’s nothing to feel shy about."

Preeti and Ashwini completed two decades of marriage this September.

It’s a heart-warming story, but Ashwini Monga is an exception in a country where the differently-abled battle staggering degrees of insensitivity and ignorance, attitudes that get amplified manifold when they seek a partner, someone to fall in love with, or marry.

More hurdles for women

Sweta Mantrii, a 29-year old freelance writer, editor and documentary filmmaker in Pune who has spina bifida, a condition where the vertebral column bones do not cover the spinal cord entirely. Mantrii studied in a regular school, has an MBA in communications management from a reputed private institute, worked and lived by herself in Mumbai for a year before coming back and has many friends, male and female. Yet, six years ago, a distant relative, presumably invited by her parents to help in their search for a groom for Mantrii, asked her to "Show me how you walk".

That was about six years ago, and her parents are still at it. Mantrii isn’t against marriage; she would like, like many girls her age, a partner, home, love, companionship. But it’s been a difficult quest marred by rejections and jolts to her self-esteem. Families of prospective grooms, says Mantrii, have "implied" to her parents that they expected a financial incentive in exchange for marriage.

"The problem is our social conditioning. Even men with disabilities expect to marry an able-bodied woman," says Versha Kewalramani, 29, a corporate lawyer in Mumbai who has a rare skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa, characterised by skin blisters. Kewalramani speaks of a gendered bias in marriage prospects of the physically-challenged. "While a man, if educated with a well-paying job, expects to marry an able woman, a woman is expected to only marry someone with a disability," she says. Kewalramani, by her own confession, has a "liberal, well-to-do" background, grew up in cosmopolitan Mumbai, went to a regular school and has a mother who pushed her to go out, travel the world, get a career and be independent. She’s just broken up with an able-bodied man she’d dated for a few months. This was her second boyfriend – her first had been a differently-abled man with whom, too, she broke up after a few months. "We found that we our personalities didn’t match," she says.

Romantic liaisons such as Kewalramani’s, with or without marriage in mind, may be fairly common especially among white-collar professionals in cities, but it is practically unthinkable for the differently-abled. As Mantrii found to her cost, her able-bodied male friends were fine with friendship, but were hesitant when it came to romance.

For those from somewhat conservative backgrounds, it’s often their own inhibitions that get in the way. "Unfortunately, most differently-abled people have a poor sense of dignity and self-worth, which gets in the way of finding happiness with a partner. And it’s the parents themselves who are responsible for not giving them a sense of self-confidence. Disabled members of a family are often not invited to come out and interact with visitors – as if they are a shame on the family," says Monga, who also counsels the differently-abled, including couples. "If their own families don’t give them confidence, then how do you expect them to overcome their inhibitions and take a chance with happiness?"

Neha*, a 29-year-old accountant with a real-estate firm, exemplifies such diffidence. Polio-affected and wheelchair-bound, she is apprehensive about marriage. "At home, I have everything to cater to my needs. My family is sensitive and cares for me. I am independent. I don’t know whether another person or family can be as sensitive to my problems. I’d rather be unmarried than find myself in an unhappy relationship. I am lucky my parents agree with me about this," she says.

Women with disabilities may have the dice loaded heavily against them, but men also face constraints when contemplating marriage or finding a partner. Forty-one-year old Ankur Dhir, who runs a small stationery business in Delhi and suffers from muscular dystrophy, says the thought of marriage has until recently been far from his mind. "It’s not just my disability. I first need to earn enough to support a wife and family before thinking of such things," he says. "It was hard because my parents died when I was young and I had little support. It’s only in the last two years that I feel I have the income and a household to offer a partner."

Blame it on the infrastructure

Others like Jatin Agarwal*, a software consultant in a Gurgaon MNC, want a partner who understands them and share the same values. "I’d like to get married to a differently-abled girl because I feel only someone who is differently-abled herself can understand me. But I also would like someone who is educated and independent and will fit in with my family," says Agarwal, who’s registered on several matrimonial sites in his search for a bride.

"The problem, even in cities, is that there are so few places where the physically-disabled can meet and interact," says Kalyani Khona, co-founder of Inclov, a matchmaking app for the differently-abled and people with long-term illnesses. Inclov launched early this year and runs an off-line initiative, Social Spaces, where the differently-abled who’ve registered on Inclov can meet. Khona, just 23 years old, points to her own difficulties in finding a public space with requisite accessibility facilities for the event: "How many restaurants in the city have ramps and toilet facilities for the disabled, or passageways wide enough for wheelchairs? In a place like Delhi, there are just one or two like that."

The discourse on the differently-abled, says Preeti Monga, has until now been largely limited to inclusive schools and colleges and making sure they find employment. "These are important, but more important, I feel, are avenues for social networking. After all, what’s the point if you don’t have friends or a family to come home to?" she asks.

It is needs like these that Inclov are helping to meet. In just nine months, the app has notched up 4,000 registered members and brought about one marriage. Monga herself runs a similar initiative called Fusion, which brings together the differently-abled and able-bodied so they can network for jobs or romance.

These are, as yet, isolated and periodic efforts. Inclov has had six such meet-ups in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore, while Fusion meets have been held only in Delhi until now. But both Khona and Preeti Monga recognise the initiative needs to reach into small town India to be really effective. Inclov, for one, instituted an "ambassador" programme under which it will support anyone who volunteers to organise a Social Spaces meet-up. Monga, meanwhile, is trying to get the Rotary Club, with its wide network, to support Fusion so the differently-abled can take part in their meetings.

The idea is to get the differently-abled out and about, interacting with those like themselves and others, gaining in confidence. Marriage or romance can follow.

(*Names changed on request)

| Sun, 4 Sep 2016-06:35am , Mumbai , dna

4 Things You Should Ask Yourself Before Sharing Inspiration Porn On Social Media

Social media accounts and news outlets foam at the mouth to fill themselves with cell phone videos of such prom-posals, even though these do the polar opposite of normalizing disability.

Social media accounts and news outlets foam at the mouth to fill themselves with cell phone videos of such prom-posals, even though these do the polar opposite of normalizing disability.

Facebook posts can easily shape-shift into 21st​-century sideshows.

Spring is here, meaning prom season is upon us. As much as my 33-year-old self loves the vicarious joy in seeing what the kids are into — which is decidedly not French twists and chokers anymore — I shudder at the thought that my news feed will soon be inundated with a certain kind of prom-posal that stresses me out.

The kind of stories and videos I’m talking about are ones you’re surely used to seeing in your own feeds: ones where a person with disability is asked out to the big dance.

You know the scene: quarterback of the football team gives Girl With Autism a cookie cake frosted with the question “Prom?” Everyone claps. Video goes viral.

These pieces tend to spread because of the warm fuzzies they give the general population. However, as a girl who happens to be in a wheelchair, these videos make me very uncomfortable. Without fail, the person doing the asking is framed as a hero, and sometimes they are even interviewed on a talk show (if their story was especially popular).

The ask-ee? Well, they’re usually diminished to the recipient of a charitable act.

For a while, this breed of condescension was relegated to daytime talk shows and outlets with the journalistic integrity of Inside Edition.

But then social media seeped into every crevice of mainstream media. Clips about people with disabilities doing typical things are appearing on the nightly news, well — nightly.

Depending on how these stories are presented, they, more often than not, fall under the umbrella of “inspiration porn.”

This whole epidemic has led me to roll my eyes and yell expletives at my screens more times than I can count. If you’ve ever seen something akin to the following, you’ve definitely witnessed inspiration porn.

“This boy is blind, but can sing like an angel — watch his inspiring performance!”

“This woman born without legs just had a baby! Isn’t it a miracle?”

Meanwhile, I am usually on the other end of these, shouting the seemingly obvious: “What does vision have to do with vocal ability?” or “Legs aren’t attached to a uterus; why can’t she have a family?”

Given that I was a communications major, I get why these types of headlines are so accepted (even if they are nonsense). People like to feel better about society and hear something that isn’t terrorism or political infighting.

All I wanted as a high school junior was to do normal teen things and not have my differences pointed and “awwwwed” at en masse.

 

However, these seemingly innocuous stories are, in a very subtle way, reducing the subjects to their base level, judging them solely on their disability, and assuming that they are incapable of the same things as their peers, like hobbies or love.

Sure, exposure to people who are different is definitely a good thing, but the old adage, “Any publicity is good publicity” doesn’t really apply when you see that it could easily make one party feel less-than. Never is that weird saccharine spotlight more glaring than in the newest addition to the inspiration porn genre: the disability prom-posal story.

When I was in high school, I went to prom… with a date. Like 100% of teen girls, I was maxed out as far as insecurity and skewed self-image were concerned. Imagine my mortification if I, a wheelchair user, had been asked to the prom by an able-bodied friend — and received national attention because of it.

All I wanted as a high school junior was to do normal teen things and not have my differences pointed and awwwwed at en masse.

If a news source had hinted that my date was engaged in some kind of bizarre community service, basically insinuating that I was the most undateable creature on the planet, I likely would have taken the (very mature) path of locking myself in my bedroom and crying until graduation.

Kids today don’t have the luxury of flying under the radar. Social media accounts and news outlets foam at the mouth to fill themselves with cell phone videos of such prom-posals, even though these do the polar opposite of normalizing disability. In fact, their popularity is immensely damaging to our uphill struggle to be treated not as a spectacle, but just like anyone else.

If a person asks their classmate with a disability to prom, it should be because they want to go with them, or, perhaps, in part because they feel it’s a nice gesture — not because of public recognition and praise that are both peppered liberally with words like “amazing” and “brave.”

Ugh. It’s enough to make me rip my hair out.

(But then, who knows? Maybe the “story” of my rocking a bald head and a wheelchair would be trending. I can see it now: “You go, girl! Brave young woman shows us the true meaning of inspiring beauty!”)

I get it. Healthcare and transportation and the overall status of rights for people like me suck, so this seems like small potatoes on the spectrum of disability issues.

But, unfortunately, I think it is reflective of a bigger problem. Often, when people with disabilities are portrayed as being “just like anyone else,” they are more or less being made into a curiosity, which only further highlights their differences. Facebook posts can easily shape-shift into 21st​-century sideshows.

Here are a few things to ask yourself before you hit that “share” button:

  1. How would I feel if I were the recipient of the kind of attention given in this story?

  2. Is the thing the person is being lauded for even directly affected by their disability (e.g., a child who is deaf being good at baseball)?
  3. How is the person depicted? Are they treated as an equal?
  4. Whom is the story serving? What is the intended purpose of the story?

I know it’s going to happen every year like clockwork, but just once I would love the headline to read a bit differently:

“Girl who happens to be in a wheelchair gets asked to prom… because she’s super fun to be around!”

Disability Representation and the Problem with “Inspiration Porn”

Image result for inspiration porn

Inspiration Porn

Imagine waking up and realizing that your right hand looks, moves, and feels completely unlike your left hand. You stand up and walk over to your dresser and notice you are limping, but decide to ignore it and get ready for your day. As you lift the shirt you’ve chosen to wear and pull it over your head, your right arm suddenly stiffens, and it takes an additional two minutes to get your arm through the armhole. Once you’re dressed, you figure that the worst is over — until you go to tie your shoes. Your fingers on your right hand cannot grip the shoestring long enough for your left to do most of the work. L

ater, you leave to meet a friend for lunch, but when you step outside you notice that people you don’t know are staring at you, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. You try your best to avoid their gazes as you enter the restaurant. Your knees begin to buckle, and you know you’re going to fall.

All of this, which might sound unfamiliar to you, is my everyday reality. Strangers who see me often let their curiosity get the best of them. They watch me walk down hallways and up store Image result for inspiration pornaisles, their eyes on me, expecting an explanation. I could tell them about my cerebral palsy, explain that this is a disability I was born with, but there is never enough time to say the things I wish to.

No, I’m fine, I really don’t need your help.

I don’t know the exact type and name of the cerebral palsy I have.

No, you don’t need to speak to me slowly. I understand you just fine.

Sometimes I feel guilty, cowering under beady eyes. I feel guilty for the desperate way in which I do desire to explain myself to complete strangers, and then I remember that I shouldn’t have to.


Growing up I didn’t have access or exposure to people like me. There was no one with a disability acting on television, no songs I could listen to or books I could read that might have reflected my life back to me. Couple that with being a Black girl with a disability, the representation simply wasn’t there. The only disabled folks I ever saw on TV were the ones placed in froImage result for inspiration pornnt of a camera at telethons promising to raise money for disability research — the same telethons that were often criticized by people with disabilities for their negative attitudes about disability. We never watched a full telethon, but sometimes we caught them in between commercials. I’d sit impatiently on my living room floor, watching as the host stood beside a person in a wheelchair and told their story, sometimes crouching down beside them as they spoke in a belittling, babying tone. I remember thinking that these people with disabilities, the people the telethons choose to show and exploit, were not the only types of people with disabilities.

There is a sad truth known throughout communities of people with disabilities: exploitation. In lieu of telethons, a plethora of videos now make their way across various social media sites. These popular videos, known to some as “Inspiration Porn,” use the stories of people with disabilities and cut them into thirty-second clips with a dismissive and harmful caption along the lines of ‘Wow! I need to be thankful for what I have!’ Oftentimes these videos are shared with me by well-meaning friends and family. They expect me to be amazed by the man who can drive with his feet, the lady who is raising three kids without her legs and arms, and the child who excels at painting with a brush held in his mouth. These videos usually precede some sort of comment about how I shouldn’t feel upset over the hand I’ve been dealt, because other folks have it worse.

Here is the thing: the hardships of other people with disabilities don’t make me feel better. These videos don’t amaze me. They make me angry, because they are packaged to alleviate the misguided guilt of non-disabled people for not having disabilities. I used to announce that I was proud of these people with disabilities and of their innovation until I learned how ridiculous that very idea was. They never asked for my pride, and they don’t need it, because the act of survival doesn’t warrant the same immediate celebration for folks without disabilities. My loved ones who show me these videos don’t understand why they are so harmful. They’ve never stopped to ask themselves why they see a mere adaptation to circumstance as inspirational.

Image result for inspiration porn

Disability Representation and the Problem with “Inspiration Porn”

Most of the “inspirational” videos exploit the idea of attitudinal “inspiration,” the expectation to always “look on the bright side,” but that is just not the way the spectrum of human emotion works. No one is happy all the time, everyone has bad days, and it shouldn’t mean that their stories don’t matter. These videos feed the dangerous and dehumanizing expectation that all people with disabilities should strive to achieve behavioral “inspiration” — by adapting to the world; i.e., driving cars or cooking with our feet, doing our hair with the use of one arm. We are seen as extraordinary for these very things when they are really just daily acts of living for many disabled people. These behavioral “inspirations” also lend themselves to the idea that those who have not adapted in the same way are somehow less deserving of support or praise. Those who do not comply are to be ignored and dismissed.


There is still little to no genuine media representation for people with disabilities, especially those of us who are also people of color. At 24, I’ve now stopped to ask myself how the lack of proper representation has shaped the woman I am today.

I wish I could say that I love this disability, that I have grown to accept it, but I haven’t. Not yet. I still pick apart the things I can’t change: the permanent limp, the aching knees, the hand with curved fingers. All the things strangers seem to notice about me first are also the things I used to wish away. When I go out in public, I feel like the main event at a circus, the lion without a tamer, pulling the attention of passersby, nervous as they fill the surrounding seats with baited breath. But I do not want to put on a show, I just want to blend in.

The older I get, the more my anxiety in crowded spaces builds. I can’t help the way my heart races if a set of eyes I do not know lingers a moment too long, or if the question “What accident were you in?” falls from the chapped lips of store clerks and strangers. Often these strangers demand conversations about disability that I never wanted to have. They assert a false dominance, or state their unsolicited opinion. Once, while headed to my college senior capstone class, I was stopped by a woman who insisted on helping me with a blue folder that had slipped briefly out of my right hand. After reassuring her three times that I was fine on my own, she became indignant, blocking the snowy path to my building with her worn-out boots and demanding that I be thankful for what she considered her “random act of kindness.” I let her yell, watched as her right hand found her hip and her nose reddened from the cold. I let her yell, tightening the grip on my folder. She soon walked away in a huff, and I spent the remainder of the day wracked with guilt, wondering if I should have just let her help me even though I didn’t need it.

My disability gives me experiences, confrontations, and responsibilities that I didn’t ask for. It is a constant reminder of the societal pressure to rise above bad days, both physical and mental. I am, after all, an “inspiration” — or so I am told. But I don’t want to be an inspiration, especially not the kind other people expect me to be. Their “acceptable” versions of people with disabilities are expected to be happy and grateful, and if we aren’t then we are “bitter cripples.” We are then cast away, dismissed for being “mean” and “angry,” because we don’t conform to the smiling, excited, happy-to-be-alive personas that people without disabilities tend to feel most comfortable with. There is nothing wrong with being a happy and grateful person with a disability, but there is something wrong with the exploitation that unfair expectations breed.

I’m often resentful of this body that I am housed in. I am not able to go through life constantly wearing my disability like a badge of honor. I used to have a reoccurring dream that I was a snake, eager to shed this skin to arrive anew, to rid myself of an arm and leg that felt like a parasite I couldn’t shake. I used to want a second chance, a second body to jump into, so I’d know what I was missing. Sometimes, I still do.


Around this time last year, I made a list of all the things I didn’t like about myself. It was 21 items long. Then I sent my closest friends a text message that read: “I have to ask you a serious question. I want the truth, so don’t sugar-coat it. How long did it take you to see past my disability after we met?”

I do not know what answer I was expecting. Maybe an affirmation of what I always thought was true, that I am an embarrassment to my friends, that I held them back in some way. I expected them to tell me that my disability was too much for them, the way it often is for me. I received variations on the same answer: It was never a big deal to them; it was a thing they noticed at first, and then it became something they didn’t focus on.

I felt relieved by their answers, but now I am unsatisfied with my own. Now I find I want to belong to a real community of disabled folks. I want to ask them how they learned to like and love themselves. I want to try and love myself, too, one day.


When a tweet of mine about including disabled girls in feminism blew up, my good friend messaged me and asked, “Is it weird/wrong that I don’t see you as disabled, I just see you as a person? I completely forgot about your disability.”

I paused for a moment. I know this friend well; we talk often about feminism and politics, pop culture and the college classes that changed how we saw the world. We sat behind phone screens with a three-hour time difference between us, and had the best conversation about disability I have ever had with a non-disabled person. I explained to them that this idea, while its intent may be complimentary, is actually erasure. Telling me or other people with disabilities that our disability is something to forget is just as harmful as when my Blackness is erased with the claim “I don’t see color.” The problem with dismissing or ignoring these things about me is that doing so feeds the idea that we should ignore the things that make us different — that we should feel shame and guilt just for acknowledging that we don’t all share the same privileges or lived experiences. My Blackness, like my disability, is something that everyone sees, and even on days when I wish the latter to fade away, it will always be there.

When parents scold their children for looking at me or asking me questions, I often urge them not to, because I want to be the one to tell my story. If we don’t allow people with disabilities to tell their own stories, we run the risk of letting “inspiration porn” be the only access most other people have to us. If we aren’t able to tell our own stories, perhaps we will be erased from history, our truth fading away one Facebook video at a time.

I do not want to be an “inspiration” because I’ve found a way to adapt and survive. If I am an inspiration, let it be because my words inspired someone else to put pen to paper for the first time in a long time. Let something I’ve said, created, or nurtured be the thing that inspires people. These are the things I am most proud of. These are the things I want to celebrate on my own terms.

Keah Brown reads a lot of books and watches far too much TV. Her work has appeared in Cactus Heart Press Literary Magazine, Femsplain, Saturday Night Reader, and Atticus Review, among other publications.

Netflix to Expand Audio Descriptions for Blind Subscribers

Netflix House of Cards

Courtesy of Netflix April 14, 2016 | 10:33AM PT

Company to enhance access for visually impaired people under settlement with advocacy groups

Netflix reached a wide-ranging three-year deal with advocacy groups for the blind, under which it has pledged to add audio-description tracks for many titles in its streaming and DVD libraries.

Also under the agreement, Netflix has agreed to make its website and mobile apps accessible to visually impaired people who use screen-reading software.

Last year, Netflix voluntarily launched an initiative to add audio descriptions to select titles, starting with “Marvel’s Daredevil.” The new agreement obligates Netflix to request audio-description assets from studios and other third-party suppliers for new licensing contracts, and “make reasonable efforts” to obtain those for existing content. For originals such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix agreed to provide audio description within 30 days of the launch date of the title and “will strive” to do so when a show premieres.

Audio description provides additional narration to let blind people know what’s happening in scenes that don’t have dialogue or have significant visual elements.

Netflix reached the settlement with the American Council of the Blind, along with Massachusetts-based Bay State Council of the Blind and Robert Baran, an individual who is blind. The groups and Baran were represented by nonprofit legal center Disability Rights Advocates.

The groups said they hope the Netflix agreement — billed as the first of its kind in the online-video space — will serve as a model for other digital entertainment providers.

“We applaud Netflix for working with us to enhance access to its services for people who are blind,” American Council of the Blind president Kim Charlson said in a statement. “As television and movies are increasingly delivered through streaming and home delivery services, ensuring that the blind community receives access to this content is critical to ensure that people who are blind are integrated into modern society.”

The agreement specifies that by Dec. 31, 2016, Netflix will have updated all apps for all applicable devices to provide blind individuals using screen-reading technology with access to the same features available to sighted users. Screen-reading software creates an audio version of text and images that appear on a screen that it reads aloud to a user.

In addition, Netflix has agreed to let users access a list of all streaming content that includes audio description and browse streaming and DVD titles with audio-description tracks in major genre categories.

Differently-abled heroes

Differently abled people honoured at an event in the capital by N.R. Narayan Murthy

Differently abled people honoured at an event in the capital by N.R. Narayan Murthy

Limca Book of Records felicitated 15 specially-abled ‘People of the year’ who did not allow disability to become an impediment to success.

To quote Mahatma Gandhi — Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. 15 specially-abled people from across the country, who were recently felicitated by the Limca Book of Records (LBR) in the capital, made this motivational quote relevant. One such case in point is Arunima Sinha, a national volleyball player who lost one of her legs, after a gang of robbers pushed her out of a moving train in 2011. But this didn’t dampen her spirit. Two years later, with a prosthetic leg on, she became the first woman amputee in the world to climb Mount Everest! “I am thankful to General Pervez Musharraf, who gave me this wild card entry into this special group of people with special abilities,” quipped India’s blade runner, Major Devender Pal, who was also honoured at the event. He added, “I lost my right leg during the Kargil war and suffered partial hearing loss and internal derangement of my left knee. The doctor informed me that one of my leg will be amputated. I didn’t lose hope and in fact, decided to live my second life with more positive approach.”

Since 2009, Major has been finding joy in running marathons with blade prosthetics, and has also achieved a feat by trekking up to 10,000 ft. Another inspirational example present at the event was i. While working in the corporate sector in Kenya, he suffered a bullet injury that left him with a visual disability. For him, the journey didn’t stop there. He went ahead and for over a decade, he has working been towards spreading legal awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities. Rauturi is currently the Asia Pacific head for Disability Rights Promotion International, a collaborative project to establish a comprehensive, sustainable international system to monitor human rights of people with disabilities.

Sharing her experience of how challenging it was to defeat the challenge and move ahead in life, visually challenged Ashwini Angadi said, “Due to my disabilities, I was discriminated at every sphere of life. As a child, I had to bear with several physical and mental abuses. My positive thinking, confidence, courage, dedication and mental strength helped me defeat all difficulties and march ahead in life.” Ashwini runs an academy for young visually challenged girls. These are just a few examples out of fifteen “People of the Year” 2016, announced by Limca Book of Records, who wanted to showcase examples of people who did not allow physical disability to become an impediment to success.

Present at the felicitation ceremony, N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder, Infosys Ltd said, “India can’t become a strong economy without becoming an inclusive economy — an economy which is inclusive in gender, ability, ethnicity and all other social parameters. People with disabilities have to be integrated with the mainstream. Corporates, civil society and governments must come together to accomplish the vision of an accessible India.” He also co-signed a petition to make ‘sign language’ an official language by including it in the ‘Eighth Schedule’ of Parliament.

Emphasising on the urgent need to make India more accessible and disabled friendly, Debabrata Mukherjee, vice president, marketing and commercial, Coca-Cola India, South West Asia added, “We wanted to drive the message of ‘Accessible India’ and spread awareness making spaces in our country more disabled friendly, and that’s why we chose the theme of the book around the same.”

Asian Age

Differently Abled, Definitely Hired

 

At Mirchi and Mime restaurant in Powai, Mumbai, you can communicate with hearing-impaired servers through gestures

At Mirchi and Mime in Powai, forget about restaurant etiquette. Here, you have to gesture for your servers’ attention. The 27-member staff is hearing- and-speech-impaired. Prashant Issar and Anuj Shah who thought up the concept say they had been to Signs Restaurant in Toronto, Canada, which has only disabled staff, and wanted to introduce it in India.

But it was not easy to recruit differently abled staff. “Their parents said, ’If something happened to our children, what would happen to us?’” recalls Issar. “We had to counter it by asking, ’Well, what will happen to your children after you’re gone?’”

Issar and Shah learned sign language themselves, so they could communicate with the people they wanted to hire. They tied up with the Rochiram Thadani Institute, Dr Reddy’s Foundation and NASEOH, which trained the employees in life sciences, job readiness, simple English and hospitality services over eight weeks.

Three weeks of on-the-job training followed, plus work at catering colleges. And then the staff began their jobs.

The 27-member staff at Mirchi and Mime is hearing-and-speech-impaired. They were trained for over eight weeks in life sciences, job readiness, hospitality services and more.

Vishal NK, is one of them. A guest service associate at the restaurant, he dreams of becoming the restaurant’s manager one day. He’s got used to the work hours and hungry guests and is proud of being able to single-handedly clear a table of four to five guests at one go. “I also look a lot dapper now.”

Mirchi And Mime’s menu carries text as well as sign language. Customers can order their food with just two signs. “But we don’t want people to come here out of sympathy,” says Issar. “We keep telling ourselves that the food is the leader. Once you start eating the food, you forget about the concept. It has to be profitable or the cause wouldn’t make sense.”

Given that the restaurant’s attrition rate is only 4 per cent (the industry average is 60 per cent). It’s clearly working out well for the staff too.

Redefining Hospitality

Differently abled is not just politically correct jargon. That’s what the proprietors of the Lemon Tree Hotels chain realised when they began recruiting people with Down syndrome and hearing and speech impediments in 2007. They learned that differently abled genuinely indicates a new skill set.

Those with Down syndrome, for instance, are happier when they work together and interact with others, which makes them brilliant in the restaurants, says Aradhana Lal, vice president of sustainability initiatives at the company. Employees with speech and hearing impediments have the amazing ability to clean 19 rooms a day, as opposed to the 16 that non-disabled people can manage. That’s because no chit-chat and gossip gets in the way.

The chain, which owns or operates 27 hotels in 16 cities, started off with a simple idea: everyone must have access to employment. today, about 13 per cent of their employees are differently abled. Training comprises a 10-day programme called See, Smile, Greet, and the speech- and hearing-impaired are provided with sign language interpreters and videos to show them how to go about their jobs. Employees with Down syndrome, meanwhile, receive one hour of training in a workday, so that they experience no information overload.

At work, Down syndrome employees carry whistles to use when they feel overwhelmed, the hearing- and speech-impaired employees carry notepads and pens to communicate. They also display a card that states their disability so as to prevent misunderstandings with guests. “This way you are educating the guest about what’s happening so she or he is not dissatisfied,” says Lal.

At Lemon Tree, job profiles keep in mind that people with Down Syndrome are happier working with others

For employees the training and support from fellow staff is what keeps them motivated. Devinder Kumar who is orthopedically handicapped, handles the front desk and back-office operations of the Delhi branch. It’s a step up from his previous job at a call centre where he “never got a rise in position in spite working well” even as non-disabled employees kept getting promoted. At the hotel chain, he started off as a telephone operator in 2013, went on to win the company’s best employee award and now handles 11 departments. “I want to do an MBA in the future,” he says.

The hotel also gets non-profit agencies to educate other employees in interacting with the disabled. “We learned that when people with Down syndrome are tired, they become moody and their actions become jerky,” says Lal. “They would drop cutlery in the restaurants. So the managers let them sit for five minutes to get their energy back.”

Where it counts, however, they’re just like other staff. “If they haven’t done their job well, we don’t hesitate to let them know,” says Lal. “If you don’t, and you spoil them, it will be a mess and no longer a business model.”

Changing the tech code

Four years ago, IT firm Capgemini decided to recruit people with disabilities. “We are so insensitive as a country,” says Gayatri Ramamurthy, the company’s head of diversity and inclusion. “This is reflected even in our buildings. If there are 22 steps to get to the office, what is a wheelchair user expected to do?”

Capgemini has more than 200 employees with hearing, speech and visual impairment, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Their roles range from account processing, technology support and software development to support functions such as recruitment, consulting and some technologies.

But they are not recruited out of pity. “We employ them for their ability, not disability,” says Ramamurthy. “And the employees need to fit the job description for their roles. If an employee in the complaint and redressal department needs to talk with customers, then a speech- or hearing-impaired person wouldn’t fit the role.”

At the IT firm, Capgemini, inclusion is also cause for celebration

Hearing-impaired trainees are provided with sign-language interpreters for the first 15 days, to help them integrate with their teams, while their seniors and peers are sensitised and also given sign-language training to overcome communication barriers.

A theatre group also enacts scenarios with employees to see how they would deal with situations that may arise. “The IT sector mainly employs young people who don’t want gyaan from a leader who says, ’read this article on disability’,” explains Ramamurthy. “The theatre group is expensive, but effective.”

Capgemini has learned that the disabled work harder than most people. “They don’t want sympathy, but empathy,” says Ramamurthy. “They want to feel included. Three years into his job, a hearing-impaired man was made manager and now is responsible for a team. He’s super happy!”

Delivering A Revolution

Aspiring entrepreneur Dhruv Lakra always wanted to transform a social cause into a business opportunity. It took a bus ride for him to finally hit upon the idea. Watching a hearing-impaired passenger struggle to communicate with the conductor, the HR College and Oxford University graduate decided, on the spot, to “challenge preconceived notions about the way the disabled are hired”.

In 2010, he launched Mirakle Couriers, a business that required its employees to have more visual skills than verbal. “The hearing-impaired are extremely good at map-reading and remembering roads and buildings because they are so visually inclined,” says Lakra. Slowly, the business grew into two offices, one at Churchgate and one in Andheri.

Mirakle Couriers turned to NGOs to recruit its 70 employees, who deliver more than 65,000 shipments a month. Training is simple. “We ask beginners to shadow experienced employees to see the kind of work they do,” says Lakra. “We take them on board if they like and are comfortable with the work.” Today, the hearing-impaired are hired as delivery boys and entry staff.

So far, the business has received a mixed response. Lakra wishes more corporates would work with Mirakle. “Creating a social impact can be very satisfying, but when it comes to a commercial venture, you’re pitted against big companies. Profits matter too.”

But then, he seldom loses his staff to other companies, and sees more loyalty from his employees than most other employers get. “It’s actually an advantage for us in the longer run,” he says.

From HT Brunch, March 27, 2016

Railway Stations not Disabled-Friendly yet, High Court warns of contempt action

Seeks Names Of Officials Responsible For Completing Work

The Bombay high court has sought the names of he Western and Central railway officers responsible for ensuring that disabled-friendly amenities are provided at suburban stations. It proposes to ssue them contempt of notice or delaying the work.

“It is a sorry state of affa rs,“ said a bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Prakash Naik, when informed that visits to 12 Western Railway , 10 Central Railway and nine Harbour line stations showed that contrary to the railways’ claim, acilities were found wanting.

The court was hearing a PIL by the India Centre for Human Rights and Law.

On March 11, the railways urged for an extension of time o comply with the HC order to complete work on providing amenities for the disabled, in cluding ramps, and lowheight booking windows and drinking water facilities. The deadline was April. Western Railway sought an extension of a year and Central Railway sought time till June. The judges then asked the NGO to verify their claims of work done and to submit a report with pictures of the conditions at stations on all the three lines.
Senior advocate Gayatri Singh, appearing for the NGO, submitted a report of the visit to the 31 stations. She said toilets were either broken or locked and ticket windows were either not at the appropriate height or closed. She said tactile indicators on the floors were not appropriately placed, adding, “At most places, they do not exist.“

Debunking Tall Claims

The judges said except for providing land for a helipad for emergencies, nothing has been done by the railways. “We pro pose to issue contempt notices to the general managers of Central and Western railways.It is the only way to ensure compliance,“ said Justice Oka.Railways’ advocates, Suresh Kumar and Sangeeta Yadav , sought time to take instructions on the NGO’s report. The judges granted a week, but said they must return with the names and designations of the officers responsible for getting the work done.

Times of India