Always More to Learn


“I have been meaning to ask you…” This seems to have become my favourite phrase since joining the NGO Trinayani in Mumbai. Having Jeeja Ghosh, who has cerebral palsy and who also works at a place that focuses on Advocacy for people with disabilities, for an aunt, I had thought that I knew most of what the word “disability” entailed.

I mean, I had seen how she walks a little differently, talks a little differently and needs a straw and spoon during lunch. I also knew that she loved pulling my leg but gave solid advice when I needed it, was one of the few people in the family who had gone to study abroad and wrote short, impactful poems.

So I had thought that no one really needed to open my eyes or show me what disability meant or about disability etiquette. What I learned since starting work for Trinayani is that there is always more to learn. Cerebral palsy is just one of the many kinds of disability that a person can have. And when it comes to etiquette, there are so many small nuances which one does not think of unless it is pointed out to one. For instance, informing a wheelchair user about a meeting well ahead of time so that he or she has the time to arrange accessible transportation for the meeting or telling a blind person whether you are standing to his left or right.

I also realized that there are people around us who have disabilities that we never really knew about or focused on. My grandfather used to use a hearing aid. When he was a child, he had an ear infection in one ear which was difficult to cure in those days and ever since he had found it difficult to hear from his left ear. He was the man who used to carry me around as a toddler, even though he was more than seventy years of age. He was the man who would tell me stories about his NCC and tennis playing days and his childhood shenanigans which included swimming, running, jumping and climbing.

In short, he was the very epitome of health throughout his life. So much so that it was only when I was reading about deafness while helping prepare a module for disability for Trinayani that it really occurred to me that he too had had a disability. It was only when I thought about it this way that the facts that a person who is disabled is not always sick and that not all disabilities are visible were consolidated.

We encounter people with disabilities every day. Sometimes we do not notice the disability and sometimes we pretend not to notice the person, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and giving offence. That is why it is so important to know about disability, to ask questions and get answers so that one can know about how people with disabilities live or simply the fact that just because they do things a little differently, they are intrinsically not really so different from us.

We are none of us exactly the same. We all do things a little differently from the person next to us; we all have our own quirks and habits. The only way to know more about each other, whether disabled or nondisabled, is to spend time together and, very simply, to ask.

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