Studying to tell the tale
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I am glad I was educated!
Soon after my birth, my parents noticed that I was not keeping up to the milestones like a normal child. They went searching for a diagnosis for me. Every doctor they met confirmed that I would be a 'vegetable'. The doctors told them: 'just feed her and clothe her as nothing can be done with her.' My parents refused to give up hope and refused to just dump me. They went in search for a diagnosis for me in England. Indeed they were right. I was assessed with high intelligence! I was put into a special school where I flourished. At that time inclusive education had not happened as it has now, when it is a mandate with Acts of Parliament and budgetary allocations supporting it. I was able to read by the age of one and a half years!
Six years later my parents returned to India, they found no school for children like me. It was a culture shock to confront the oppression around me. When I used to step out, people would either stare at me or make remarks openly in front of me. They would offer unsolicited advice: 'have you tried homeopathy or why don't take her to a fakir or a guru, she will be cured. Why don't you put a collar around her neck? It must be her last life. She doesn't need to go to school keep her at home'
These kind of comments came from everyone, including the educated rich. I was even discriminated against at children's birthday parties and social events. I was once stopped from entering a swimming pool because disabled people were considered infectious! Parents with disabled children were frowned upon. I am ashamed to say some of the top families of the country were ashamed to bring out their disabled children into their own drawing rooms in fear of the kind of behaviour that would be meted out. They say ignorance is bliss, but in this case ignorance was harmful and oppressive. The negative attitudes of people would make me cry and my mother would comfort me, but needed comforting herself. I was miserable. Socially, I felt rejected and isolated. On top of this, I had no school to go to.
It was then that my mother, who was influenced by the British model of educating disabled children, opened India's first special school. The first Spastics Society model was started in 1972 in Colaba, Mumbai. Subsequently, other schools began in Calcutta, Delhi, Madras and Bangalore. My whole family came out in support of children like me.
For me life has not exactly had a silver lining. Looking back at the age of 43, I ask myself — was a special school enough? I was in segregated education till I was 17. Seventeen years of being shut away from my brothers and sisters, from my companions, due to my disability. The system disables one further. Special schools imprison disabled people. Segregation dehumanises.
Fortunately my education was a mixture of segregated special schooling and inclusive higher education. The masters degree changed my adult life. It taught me how to think. It taught me to articulate my inner traumas that come from living in a world full of non-disabled people. It gave me the freedom of speech and the freedom of my age. For the first time in my life it has made me believe in myself and what I stand for.
The most important input that empowered me was education. What would I have done without education! The sad fact however is that for every disabled person who has the privilege of a special school, there are hundreds of disabled children who are shut out of any school at all. Today, I am proud that the government has mandated all schools to be inclusive.
With the Right to Education Act including 'all children with disabilities, I feel proud that the children of tomorrow will have an opportunity as a right to be able to study with their brothers and sisters in regular schools, and hopefully doctors will not call disabled people 'vegetables', and schools will not shut their doors to them, and the community will not shun them.
The writer is a disability activist and senior events manager, Oxford Bookstore (Mumbai)
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