Categories
Disability Media Published articles

Has the scenario really changed in the past decade?


A few years ago, I was invited to be a panelist on the popular TV show “The Big Fight” on ND TV. The topic for debate was “Is the Govt of India doing enough for the country’s disabled population?” While the Govt was being bashed and blamed for not doing enough, I asked the anchor as to how “Inclusive” the programming on his TV channel was? I wanted to know if disabled people were invited as panelists or participants in other programmes that covered politics, economics, policy, entertainment or sports? Would I as a citizen of India who happens to be visually impaired be invited onto a show to discuss the Union Budget, State elections, Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th International century or Salman Khan’s latest film release? The fact of the matter is that disabled people are seen on TV or heard on radio only when the topic has a disability dimension to it. In other words disabled persons are invited onto shows to discuss disability. Their identity and their relevance for media most often tends to be the disability.

In 2003, India hosted the International Abilympics, an event where the focus is on skills and ability. It is a platform where disabled persons compete with each other on their vocational skills. One of the participants, a young girl who had lost both her arms played the harmonium using her feet. Truly fascinating. This caught the fancy of the media and a number of stories appeared on various channels as well as newspapers. The girl was projected as a wonder kid. The sudden exposure encouraged the girl to begin dreaming of becoming a famous musician. The media coverage got the girl to believe that she was a great music genius in the making. Little did she realize that the focus of the media was on her feat of playing with her legs and not on the quality of the music she was playing which was at best very basic.

At conferences and seminars, we often hear people talk about need to use the media to sensitise, spread awareness and influence mindsets about persons with disability. Certainly, the media has tremendous potential as a platform to bring about change in the perception/perspective space. However, we should also recognize that the editors, reporters, photographers and others in the media are also part of the community and tend to carry their own share of baggage.

The year was 1991, the city was Bangalore and the event was the finals of the National cricket tournament for the blind at the St John’s medical College grounds. There were about 400 spectators watching the action amongst whom were several blind youngsters. In one corner of the ground, I saw a press photographer assembling a few blind youth. He was frantically looking about for white canes and dark glasses. I approached the group and asked as to what was going on and the photographer replied that he was trying to take a picture of blind people enjoying the game. His concern was that the boys were not looking blind and were not carrying themselves as blind people would. They were all happy and excited. Looking for the sterio-type image I guess.
Traditionally, persons with disability are viewed as lesser beings with very limited ability and talents, often considered to be a potential liability. I have lived in the mainstream world with my disability for over 5 decades and have been working and interacting with people in the disability sector for over 20 years. My experience tells me that there is a huge amount of negativity in societal perceptions and attitudes towards disability. Some of the common perceptions are

  1. Pitiable and pathetic: need help, charity
  2. A victim
  3. Aggressive or evil
  4. Objects of curiosity or freaks
  5. Noble and triumphing over tragedy: brave
  6. Laughable or the butt of jokes
  7. Having a chip on their shoulder: having an attitude
  8. A burden or an outcast from society
  9. A non-sexual person
  10. Incapable of fully participating in everyday life

Over the years, media portrayals have been mere reflections of these perceptions. I had started promoting cricket for the blind in 1990. During the inaugural National cricket tournament for the blind, I had approached a prominent TV journalist who ran one of the early private TV channels with a request for coverage. He agreed to cover the event but he asked me why I was forcing the blind to play a game that was so visual. What was I trying to prove? He could not appreciate the fact that the blind, thanks to the radio commentaries had been fascinated by the game and had started playing an adapted version of the game using sound. In fact this game is truly action packed, extremely competitive and very captivating.

Some years ago I was invited onto a show On one of the FM Radio stations. It was essentially a music programme where in between songs the anchor carried on a conversation with his guest. The chat was going on very well except that at the beginning of each segment the anchor would very enthusiastically introduced me and say “unfortunately he is blind”. The third time he did it, I interrupted and asked what was so unfortunate about being blind. I asserted that I was leading a perfectly happy life: I had a family, a profession and like everyone else had my own share of achievements and failures. I also added that being blind did not diminish in any way what I got out of life. Of course the anchor to his credit was quick to say something like “Sure, it is overcoming challenges that adds to the excitement of life”.

Over the years disabled people have been refered to as “Special People” or as “People with Special needs” or “People with Special Talent”. In my book, calling disabled people special is very patronizing. The Anth Akshari programme on Zee TV and Star Plus have been very popular shows. I had always wondered why blind singers could not be invited to participate in this programme. Sure enough, the “Special Episode” arrived with “Special singers”. It certainly did give the blind singers their glorious moments in the sun, but then they were not considered good enough to be part of the regular Anth Akshari show.

Both the electronic as well as the print media in recent times have been regularly profiling disabled achievers. Disabled individuals who have done well in their chosen vocation in life. They are often projected as exceptional human beings who have battled extreme odds to reach where they have got to in life. Great inspirational stories that must have motivated many. These stories certainly do set a bench mark for human potential and are an encouragement to many a struggling soul. But then we could view these personalities as exceptions and not the norm. Do they really represent the regular disabled citizen of the country?

It is very easy to be critical of the media and their portrayal of people with disability. Whatever we see in the media is a straight forward mirror image of our society’s perception of disability and the people who are disabled. This can change only when more and more disabled persons come out into the mainstream space and express themselves. The emergence of the internet and the various social media platforms like Face Book and Twitter have in recent times given persons with disability the opportunity to engage and participate on discussions and debates on a wide variety of topics at both National and International levels. This I believe is the beginning of a serious engagement by disabled people in the media.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation when dealing with disability tell their producers to ask themselves the following:

  1. Does the programme come through as being patronizing?
  2. Does the programme come through as being victimizing?
  3. Does the programme come through as being demonizing?
  4. Does the programme come through as being normalizing?

I was involved with the production of a weekly radio programme called Eyeway; yea hai roshni ka karawan” which is broadcast from 30 cities of the country on the Vividh Bharti network of All India Radio. The aim of the programme was to inform inspire and empower the listeners about “life with blindness”. On several of our episodes, we have interviewed persons who are visually impaired. The object is to present them as people who have had a disability but have lived a life that is fulfilling and very much part of the community. The endeavour is to work towards portrayals that present people with disability as regular day to day people living in the community- nothing special.

Ps: This article was published in CMJI, a publication from CMAI (Christian Medical Association of India) in 2011

Categories
Biography Inspiration Spiritual

In His Time

In December 1988, I quit my job in Advertising. I had decided to take up projects with blind and visually impaired people. I was determined to change the way blind people lived and the way the World perceived them. I started going out and meeting people. Started sharing my vision and my ideas. There was a huge amount of scepticism around. Several relatives and friends asked me if I knew what I was doing.

This was a major leap of faith. My wife and I had absolutely no idea as to what was in store for us. The only certainty was the passion we had for our mission and the conviction that we were responding to a divine calling. My Advertising boss Jog Chatterjee advised me to meet up with his bureaucrat friend Bhaskar Ghose who in turn connected me with S N Menon who was the Joint Secretary (JS) in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government Of India.

I had a series of insightful meetings with JS Menon. He advised me to travel around and visit some of the leading organisations working in the space and also meet with prominent personalities in the field. A few names he suggested included Lal Advani, A K Mittal, Rehmat Fazalboye, Meher Banaji and Santosh Rungta- all doyans who had tons of knowledge and experience. These meetings gave me some direction to start with.

In the meantime I was talking and sharing my thoughts and plans with my mates from college, friends in the Church and also some of my colleagues from Advertising. One such conversation was with C B Samuel who headed a Christian organisation called EFICOR which was involved with relief and development work. He got interested in my ideas though they were rather premature. He invited me home and later to his office and held extensive discussions with me both regarding my proposed projects and also my faith. He offered to take me on as a Community Development Officer (CDO) at EFICOR for two years. He said that I would be paid an honorarium of Rs.1500/- per month and that would also give me the time and opportunity to travel and get an understanding of what I was getting into. I was delighted. This was indeed a promising start.

Mindset change was one of my major concerns. Given my Advertising background, I was inclined to do something about this mindset issue. I decided to make a TV serial. I wrote a story of a little boy named Anand who was blind from early childhood. He battled through life and made it big. The narrative touched upon aspects such as parenting, education, extra curricular activities, profession , family and social life. I called the story Abhilasha and was keen that the serial should be directed by a well known and respected director. I shortlisted Satyajit Ray, Sai Paranjpe, Syed Mirza, Amol Palekar and Shashi Kapoor. I shot out letters to them introducing myself and giving a brief on the serial.

Did not hear from any of them. No surprises there I guess. I decided to give them a call. I managed to get the phone number for Shashi Kapoor. I put in a call and as luck would have it, the phone was picked up by the great man himself. I quickly made my introduction and told him about the letter I had couriered to him. He asked me to resend the letter by fax. The following Sunday, we got a telegram from him saying ” Received letter. Very interested in the project. When can we meet?” My wife and I were thrilled. I traveled to Mumbai by the earliest available train. I was excited. I was meeting a filmstar for the first time. Besides, the prospects of the TV serial becoming a reality seemed very possible.

Shashi Kapoor was a warm and friendly man. At our first meeting I gave him a quick run down on my life and a brief on the serial. I gave him a copy of the story. He took a look and told me that we should meet up a few days later. When we met up for the second time, he told me that he liked the story and that the serial should be made. Over a lunch of fish and chips the following day at his home, he asked me as to how I proposed to take the project forward. Of course, those days Door Darshan was our only option. I told him that I would get in touch with the TV company and start working on the formalities.

While the TV serial project was gaining ground, I continued to travel to different locations visiting various organisations. In the autumn of 1989, I visited the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) at Dehradun. Staying at the NIVH guest house, I was woken up early on the second morning by the sound of cricket commentary. I quickly dressed and stepped onto the adjacent playing field. What I saw and experienced was fascinating. I saw a group of blind kids playing cricket. Most incredible. The ball rattled as it moved. The players were tracking the ball hearing the sound. The passion was huge, the enjoyment was obvious and the action was mind-boggling. I realised that I was witnessing something special. A scene that was going to shake and completely change my life. A little voice in my heart told me that this was going to be my first project.
“In His time, in His time
He makes all things beautiful
In His time
Lord, please show me every day
As You’re teaching me Your way
That You do just what You say
In Your time”

Categories
Biography Inspiration Spiritual

God leads…

It was the winter of 1987, my wife and I had just relocated from Mumbai to Delhi. We had found ourselves a little flat in the Western suburbs of the city. We were expecting our first baby.

One evening my wife expressed her desire to learn Braille and transcribe books for blind school children. I thought it was a splendid idea. In fact I realised that Braille could add tremendous value to me too as a visually impaired advertising professional. It could help me with my presentations. I could take down notes at meetings and so on. Having been educated in the main stream right from the beginning, I never had the opportunity to acquire the skill of reading and writing Braille.

Armed with this desire, we approached a school for the blind in the capital. a teacher was assigned to teach us. We made several visits to the school. I must confess that at 30, I found it near impossible to learn Braille. My fingers were too insensitive to decode the dots. They were too close together for my touch to manage.

Though we gave up on our mission of learning Braille, our visits to the Blind school proved to be providencial. While moving around the school looking at the facilities and interacting with the teachers and students, I was stunned and shocked. I realised that I was extremely lucky to have been born to my parents who saw potential in me and chose to invest the best in me. At the blind school I found that there were several boys with better eye sight than me literally languishing. The buildings were poorly maintained, the curriculum was highly compromised and watered down, the faculty appeared to lack the conviction and accountability. I was angry and disgusted. I felt, I should be doing something about it.

In the meantime, we ran into some rough weather. We lost our baby. I was loosing interest in my work. Life seem to be drifting. I was anxious.

My wife and I discussed our situation. We prayed about it. We strongly believed that God had a definite plan for us. We saw the loss of our baby, the visit to the blind school and my disenchantment with advertising as all signs from God clearly telling us that it was time to move on.

In faith we took the plunge. I bade farewell to advertising. My wife took up a job as a horticulturist.

“Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Hebrews 11:1

(This story of Faith is to be continued in my next post)Tags

Categories
Biography Inspiration Spiritual

There Is No Problem Too Big…

Humanities or Science, Engineering, Medicine, Civil services or Law: what was it going to be? My younger daughter had just completed her class X exam. She had to make a choice and it was indeed a major decission for her to make. I have always believed that 16 is a little too early in life to commit oneself to a particular stream.

These conversations transported me back in time to June, 1973. I had just entered class IX and I too had to make the choice. Those days most bright kids opted for the Science stream and aspired to either become a Doctor or an Engineer. I loved Mathematics and I was a reasonably good student. I had made up my mind to take up the Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics combination.

So, on the first day of school, I stood up and confidently announced that I would be taking up Science with Mathematics. Given my academic record thus far, no one should have grudged me my preference. But I was in for a shock. The teacher abruptly stopped writing, looked up and bluntly said “not possible. You are blind. You can hardly see beyond your nose. You will not be able to do the Science practicals, draw the diagramms, maintain the journals and follow the teaching from the blackboard. Science is a definite no no for you.” I was shattered and extremely disappointed. I had certainly not bargained for this when I had left home that morning.

This seemed like a total reversal of fortunes. I did not have an option B. I was not particularly interested in Humanities. The future looked bleak. I was devastated. That evening, when I shared the developments of the day with my parents, they too appeared to be a little upset. My mother who was a great believer in the Lord Jesus Christ suggested that we should pray and take the matter to Him. She told me that God has a definite plan for each of us. He knows what is best. Of course, at that point in time, I was not buying any of it.

We were down on our knees and my mother prayed with feeling. The next morning my parents and I decided to visit the school and meet the Principal and explore possibilities. He was understanding and promised to see as to what could be done.
My parents told me that we should continue praying and wait upon the Lord. They said that God would show us the way forward in His time.

About 2 weeks later, the Principal came to the class with the final list of students who hadqualified to take up Science and the ones who would be doing Humanities. Before making the much awaited announcement, he asked me to stand up. He said that the school management had decided as a special case to create a combination of subjects for me comprising History, Economics and Mathematics. I was delighted. My mother was right. There is a God who is sovereign and who is in control.

The song writer is spot onwhen he says:

There is no problem to big that God cannot solve.
There is no mountain to tall that God cannot move.
There is no storm too great that God cannot calm.
There is no sorrow too deep that God cannot soothe.

Categories
Disability Education

Inclusive Education not happening: Call for a fresh approach

The question is whether the future lies  in Inclusive Education? The execution has been poor, the efforts have been half hearted,  the designing and planning have lacked conviction and creativity,the student experiences have been humiliating and counter productive and the outcome has been disastrous.

Inclusive Education has been the rhetoric for over 25 years.Progress has been very disappointing. Legislation is in place, the agenda has been placed before the Nation but the schools have been resisting the very idea. Where ever inclusion has happened the process has been compromised. Pedagogy has been far off the mark. Study material not available or not reaching on time. Inaccessible infrastructure. Schools believe responsibility of inclusion with parents.

For leading activists, Inclusive Education has become a bad word because of the shoddy implementation. They oppose the idea. The teachers in several private and Govt schools ask why disabled students should be forced into mainstream. The idea of inclusion has not been understood, accepted or believed in.

Is our objective merely for inclusion in classroom or is it ensuring that disable people are empowered to be part of mainstream work force and the society. The need of the hour is to strategically combine the advantages of Special and mainstream education to achieve the ultimate goal of social inclusion. Let us include where possible and give special attention where necessary. Education must achieve skills and learnings that results in mainstream employment and participation.

Technology must be used to create access and personal independence. Teachers should learn to appreciate the diversity in the human kind. Must be given enough time to engage with the students. Accent on Mugging should give way to a critical and analytic pursuit of knowledge. Focus to shift from immediate inclusion to ultimate inclusion.

Categories
Biography Inspiration Spiritual

Does God Speak with Us?

Does God really talk to us?

It was May, 1981, I was on a train from Delhi to Ernakulam, Kerala . I had just completed my Masters in O R (Operations Research) from the prestigious St.Stephen’s College, Delhi and was going home. The journey was symbolic, in the sense that It marked the end of a rather exciting and enjoyable student life.

As I settled onto my berth, my thoughts drifted towards the future. Yes, I was at the threshold of a professional career. Some of my friends had already got job offers, few of them had even begun work. I had decided to take a couple of months off to relax at home before embarking on my search for a job. My mother had died of cancer barely 6 months earlier and I felt it was important for me to spend some time with my father.

Given my background in O R and Mathematics, I was looking forward to a possible career as a Systems Analyst. I was also open to taking up a Marketing assignment. I felt I would be good at marketing since I enjoyed meeting people, traveling and facing up to challenges

Having studied in one of India’s top colleges, I was confident of making a mark in life. I believed that finding a job would be a simple matter of routine. As I hopped off the train at Ernakulam, I was delighted to see my father at the station. He seemed equally thrilled to meet up with his Post Graduate son.

After a month or so, I began my job hunt in right earnest. I developed my CV. I made it a point to mention that I was Visually Impaired, since I was clear that my potential employers needed to know about my disability before they hired me.
Every morning the newspaper was scanned, jobs were identified and applications were sent. Surprise! Surprise! contrary to my expectations, the response was far from being overwhelming. Infact there were just the three or four polite regret letters that said “Your CV is indeed impressive, however we do not have a suitable job for you at the moment. Will get in touch with you as soon as something comes up.” A little disappointing, but then I pressed on.

My father sent my CV to some of his friends who had volunteered to try and help. An uncle of mine who had retired from one of India’s top Industrial groups wrote to some of his contacts. Nothing seemed to be working out. I guess, people did not want to take a chance with my disability.

My confidence that was sky high scarcely a few months before, had started dwindling. I felt , I was running out of options. For the first time in life, my disability seemed to pose a genuine challenge. I could see myself withdrawing into a shell. Social gatherings and family get togethers no longer seemed to hold their charm.

To make matters worse, I could sense an attitude change amongst relatives and family friends. I overheard some of them share their concern with my father. They appeared to be sorry for me. I heard them ask questions like “What is his future? Do you have any plans? It must be really tough on you “ and so on

All of a sudden, I felt terribly alone. I began to miss my mother. She had been a source of solid support and strength during my growing up years. She was one person, I could confide in. Frustration and self pity started creeping in and I could see myself slipping to a new low with every passing day.

Something had to be done. Nearly nine months had gone by and no progress had been made. Most of my friends from college had got themselves jobs and were well on their way. My mother had always told me that there was a God above and that nothing happened without His knowledge. She would say that, “We need to have Faith. Nothing is impossible with Him. He is truly the Living God and He loves you.” She had further told me, “Son, whenever you are in trouble, turn to Him.”

Finally as a last option, I turned to God. I spent hours reading my large print Bible and praying. I prayed with feeling. My mother’s reassuring words kept coming back to me. ”Nothing is impossible with God”. I was determined to get God onto my case. Days went by and nothing changed, but I persisted. I realized that I Had no other option. I surrendered myself entirely to God and told Him to shape and mould my life.

It was early April, 1982. I was woken up at 4 in the morning. It wasn’t a voice that shook me from my slumber, it was a commanding thought that totally changed my life. The thought filled me with tremendous energy. I had never felt like that before. I could not wait for my father to wake up. For the next three hours or so, I paced restlessly in my room. Millions of thoughts and ideas raced across my mind. I was literally jumping up and down.

I believe that God had spoken to me and had given me definite direction. He said” Son, if you want to do something in life, go out and do it yourself. Go out in Faith and the World will be at your feet.” I had made up my mind. I decided to take the first available train to Delhi , since that was the city I knew best. When I shared my morning’s experience with my father, he readily agreed. He said “Son, go for it.”
A week later I was on the train bound for the capital full of positive energy. The 52 hours on the train gave me the time to take stock of things and charter a plan of action. Advertising was the career I had chosen. The depression and despair of the past nine odd months had given way to hope and anticipation. I could not wait for things to happen

I arrived in Delhi on the 21st of April, 1982. Three days later I landed my first job with one of the country’s larger Advertising agencies. I was appointed as Trainee Accounts Executive. This was the beginning of a journey that had been specially chosen for me by the Living God. Yes the job was waiting for me. I had just to go out in Faith and get it. Nothing is impossible with God. I have realized and learnt that if I am prepared to surrender my life to God and live in Faith, He will work wonders. Who says God does not talk to us. Ask me.

Categories
Inspiration

Breaking Down Barriers of the Mind

Often, the biggest obstacles are situated in our own minds. It is our thinking that suggests”what we can do and what we cannot do”. It is our mind that determines our understanding of our own potential and limits.

SalmaSultan had spent the first 35 years of her life sitting at home doing nothing. She is blind and both her family and she felt that she could not do much and that it was best for her to sit at home and relax. Her family could take care of her. This was the case till she heard interviews with Madhu Singhal, a totally blind social entrepreneur and Preeti Monga, a totally blind motivational trainer. For the first time in her life Salma realized that she too had talents and abilities that were not being used. She got her brother and sister in law to call up and speak to Score Foundation, the NGO that had interviewed the two women on their radio programme “Eyeway, yea hai roshni ka karwan”. Salma started learning Braile and Tailoring. She suddenly had a dream and direction in life. She also began moving out and interacting with people.

Our mind works on the knowledge it has at its disposal. The moment Salma and her family got that extra information, their lives changed dramatically. Hence it is important for us to constantly add to our knowledge base so that we can understand ourselves better and also set goals and give direction to our lives.

All of us human beings have talents and abilities. Often we are hesitant to move ahead as we are dependent on others for our activities. We depend on others for our mobility. we need people to help us with our reading and writing. We are not confident about doing things ourselves. Again a state of mind. It is critical for us to work on our Independence and self reliance. The less we depend on others for our work, the better it is for us. This independence not only enhances our efficiency, but also it raises our self esteem and self respect. Thus we need to constantly work on developing our skills that break down the barriers of dependency.

All of us have challenges and problems in life. In fact these problems some time can take control of our life. It could become an obsession. The problems, many a times give us an excuse for giving up or not trying. Again, challenges , problems and struggles are huge barriers in the mind In such situations we endeavour to focus on the Solution rather than the problem. As Edward Debono would say,try to think laterally. Napoleon had said “Nothing is Impossible”- meaning that there is a solution to every problem. It is for us to look for it. We need to shift our focus from the problem to the solution. We are talking about an attitudinal shift. Be “Solution driven”.

We are living in a competitive World. We could be good at something. But then there could be many others who are better than us. Hence there is a need for us to “Strive” to be the best. This calls for us to constantly improve ourselves so that we are ahead of the rest. We can definitely choose to use our disability as a reason to not work on our skills and not strive for excellence. But then we always need to remember that we are responsible for our own lives. Our success and failures ultimately depend entirely on us. As they say the buck stops with us.

Well, one can argue that all this is easily said than done. Believe me, nothing in life comes easy. There is no pain without gain. Fruits of life are directly propotional to the effort we put in. The effort has to be in the right direction. Let us not allow the barriers of the mind restrict us. Let us break down the barriers of the mind using the KISS principle

K Knowledge
I Independence
S Solution driven
S Strive to excel

We need to have a goal in life. A goal that we are passionate about. It is passion that drives us. When you are passionate about something, then you go flat out to gather information, find ways of doing things and strive to excel. A passionate goal is like a magnet that draws you to it. As the CNN IBN punch line goes, you would do “Whatever it takes” to achieve. I did experience this KISS principle when I was going after my dream of a “World Cup cricket tournament for the blind in 1998. So KISS with passion.

By

George Abraham .

Categories
Biography

Why does George speak

Hi,

I believe in the great potential there is in every human being and in the unlimited opportunities there are in this beautiful World of ours. It is our own thinking that limits and prevents us from realising our potential and grabbing the numerous opportunities.

Through this blog I hope to share personal thoughts, experiences and inspirational stories that would open our minds and extend the horizons of our World. I believe that each of us have compelling dreams and visions for ourselves. I do hope that my writings would encourage at least some of us to shift track from the routine and the mundane to a track where life becomes exciting, challenging and passion driven.

I also hope that this blog would have content that would bring greater meaning and purpose to life and fortify and strengthen each one of us to face up to challenges, problems and struggles thrown at us from time to time.

While I certainly would enjoy writing this blog, I would invite you to also feel free to share your comments and views. Together let us change the way we live our lives. Let us seek the World and the life that lies “Beyond the I”

George Abraham