‘We have to come forward and fight for our rights’
It is an unsaid truth that disabled women share the pain of double marginalisation – of being female and disabled at the same time. They have been denied opportunities throughout history. It is sad that some people do not see the disabled as persons with their own identities. But women are now gaining the power and confidence they lacked in the past. It is high time that we broadened our world views and realised that each one of us is unique. Being different is special. Rather than a disability, it is a different way of life.
The workshop “Workshop on Empowering Women with Disabilities” organised by Pallium India in collaboration with Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) on 23 November 2019 at Govt. Women’s College Trivandrum, was a platform to discuss the contemporary attitudes towards communities of disabled people in general and disabled women in particular. It was an opportunity to meet new people and understand each other beyond language barriers. Seeing sign language interpreters translating speech into Indian Sign Language for the deaf was a new experience to the majority of people who attended.
There were 20 women with different kinds of disabilities as participants, who shared what all difficulties they face in their everyday lives. Deaf and Hard of Hearing women expressed how the absence of subtitles in movies takes away their access to them. Similarly, railway announcements regarding cancellations of trains and re-scheduled times are not shown in visual formats that are accessible to the Deaf. It is also important to encourage sign language in deaf schools, since a lot of students complain that following an oral approach in Deaf education delays their language development. They also highlighted the need to have sign language interpreters in government offices and other institutions, so that the Deaf can have accessibility. There are many who consider Deaf as dumb and mentally unstable, and families that deny them from living independently. Women in wheelchair shared the difficulty of not having barrier-free ramps, disabled-friendly public transportation services and accessible toilet. Due to the barrier in accessibility to doctor’s offices and clinics, people with disabilities are less likely to have proper health care and medical assistance than others. The high unemployment rates regardless of educational qualifications were also another problem they raised. Some even shared the pain of body shaming. Their real experiences proved that the hardship disabled women face in the modern times is not negligible.
It is necessary to provide women with disabilities a space of their own by empowering them and bringing them to the mainstream, and by creating access to equal opportunities and civil rights. They need to be prioritised with leadership positions held by them. But the lack of knowledge and awareness makes it harder for them to realise what all rights are entitled to them. Adv. Sandhya J’s session on disability rights was a thought-provoking experience for everyone. Out of the 7 lacs disabled people in Kerala, 3 lacs are women. We would never get the rights done unless we come forward in groups and fight for it. There are acts and policies to ensure that women and children do not face any social, domestic or sexual harassment. But the laws that are meant for the equal rights and protection of the disabled are not available when we need them the most. Adv. Sandhya made it clear that any discrimination regarding gender, race or class in one’s own family or in workplace in the name of disability is legally punishable. She provided new information on the programmes and schemes of the government for persons with disabilities, such as reservation, concessions etc. as well as on what to do and whom to call and complain in case of any need. This discussion on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) act and women’s rights couldn’t be any better!
The awareness class on sexual and reproductive health by Dr. Shaliya James was an eye-opening one. It is when children are not given proper sex education from parents, caregivers and formal school systems that they seek the help of friends and media. Lack of timely information often leads to so much fear and prejudice that the person finally turns to wrong information and assumptions. Being in a country where discussing sexual matters is considered a taboo, many, especially people with disabilities, are deprived of the basic sexual knowledge. This informative session rewrote the social conflicts that surround sexual health education and pointed out to the need to have proper sex education at home, schools and public health campaigns for disabled women communities.
The participants were asked to share about their own lives, abilities, hobbies and ambitions. There was also an opportunity for them to showcase their skills. One of them read out some poems from her poetry collection about her own life experiences. It was refreshing and the audience was enchanted. Challenges and physical limitations do not stop anyone from expressing themselves.
The attitudinal barriers, barriers to communication and accessibility, inferior treatment, spreading stereotypes, making unfair comparisons etc are only a few of the difficulties the disabled groups face in their day-to-day lives. They do not want sympathy and charity, so stop being patronising. As tax-payers in a democratic nation, they have the equal right to earn their own way and live independently. Appreciate their hard work and provide them with equal opportunities and equal access to their rights. Their talents, gifts, merits and contributions need to be recognised. Lack of understanding and awareness often cause people to make assumptions and perceptions, and to judge the disabled. That is why it is the need of the hour to raise social awareness among people and combat prejudices relating to individuals with disabilities. It is not about making them stronger; they are already strong. It is about changing the way the world perceives that strength.