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new internationalist
issue 207 - May 1990


Tea, charity, pain
and performance

How can you get people to care about disability
in a country like India - where so many of the able-bodied
are empty-bellied? Dinyar Godrej has been trying.

In Colaba, South Bombay's smart, tourist-infested strip, I once saw a foreigner kneeling down in the street to attend to a legless, bleeding man who was rolling across the pavement, turning pain into performance. As the foreigner extracted gauze and cotton wool from his bag the beggar screamed in protest. But the stranger's determination to help was not to be challenged: he proceeded to wrestle with the legless man, forcibly dressing his sores in pristine white. The crowd of shoppers, normally indifferent, watched this display of charity with fascination. The beggar, meanwhile, could not believe his misfortune: who would part with small change now that he had been sanitized?

This incident typifies the situation of people with permanent handicapping conditions in India. Deprived of any social - and often economic - status, their only option is to flaunt their disability. Medical intervention may sometimes appear to make their plight more bearable, but is rarely followed by efforts to help them adjust to a society which does not care about their needs and actually obstructs them from competing in the financial arena.

The prevalent attitude in India is that disability is a non-issue as long as large numbers of the able-bodied cannot afford decent meals. It is easy to forget that disability is more prevalent among the poor and that the disabled face the same rat-race as anyone else - but with more numerous needs and greater disadvantages. In effect, government indifference is tantamount to discrimination.

The media sporadically erupts in praise of picnics for post-polio children or book donations for the blind. The honourable minister beams beatifically as he hands over the cheque. Society ladies turn up at offices of voluntary organizations hoping to minister bananas and biscuits. At the reception of a 'philanthropic club' speeches of self-congratulation have us cringing in our seats for hours.

Understandably, 'charity' is a dirty word amongst disabled people and those who are working with them. The Government always stresses custodial care rather than specialized training. The teachers and therapists at the Centre for Special Education of the Spastics Society of India, where I worked, are tired of hearing about their 'noble' and 'virtuous' profession. They are underpaid professionals who persist in caring - not rich do-gooders, pursuing a 'hobby'. The children they help train and educate have also too often heard the words 'courage'. 'struggle', 'abnormal'.

My job was as a publicity person, producing brochures that countered, for example, the popular Indian view of disability as a punishment for the sins of a past life. Fund-raising in an environment that did not give a damn about disability was an exhausting and, at times, crude process. Often campaigns had to be sentimental before they could begin to jolt an indifferent public. Or they had to be spectacular: we organized Bombay's largest fun-fair. Articles in the media, if not completely misguided, blended patronage and pity. We had to write our own articles to provide a clearer picture.

The Government reacted with token gestures and vague recommendations, being content to lean on the work the voluntary organizations were doing. Forced to chase a limited number of benefactors and modest funds, such organizations were often critical of each other's efforts, viewing their own work in isolation. More conservative organizations would criticize the progressive ones for being too concerned with new ideas. The progressive ones would counter that conservative organizations spread their efforts too widely to be effective. Yet all across the country they persisted in their efforts, propagating their causes with the stridency of pioneers, knowing that things have to change, however slowly. But for disabled people, the frustrations persist.

At the Spastics Society Centre no-one was encouraged to dwell upon their misfortune. But I remember the blind students who were at college with me being perpetually disappointed by their sighted colleagues - and being very vocal about it. They had reason - people went quiet on them in lifts; despite frequent requests, few offers to read books aloud came from those who could see.

Or could we see? Isn't there a special kind of blindness that is a common reaction to disability worldwide: an inability to see the disabled as an integral part of society? For example, in England recently, a Saturday tin-rattler blithely informed me that the money was for a 'mental home' where 'they keep them right from the moment they are diagnosed until the moment they die...'

Dinyar Goodrej, who lives in Bombay, is currently studying in the UK.

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New Internationalist issue 207 magazine cover This article is from the May 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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