I’m certain you must have read scores of articles on the disabled, their inspiring stories of beating the odds, or how corporations and governments do nothing for “them”. Invariably, the stories come with a liberal helping of action points and calls to actions on making India a disabled-friendly country. Nobody, however, raises the question of the role of the members of the disabled community themselves – have they settled for a substandard life?
I’m a member of the disabled club. While I have a large and diverse set of friends today, this wasn’t always the case. In school, I was a social outcast, with my social interactions limited to the answers I gave to the teachers’ questions. Not that the teachers really believed in me, or thought that I’ll be an eminent alumnus one day. What they had was an ocean of sympathy for this boy in a wheelchair who was doing something beyond just sitting in a wheelchair.
They were probably thinking, he’s prepared for class despite being disabled, so let’s give him his two seconds of fame. What they did not consider was that, unlike other kids, I had all the time in the world to prepare for class because no one would play with me. This wasn’t because the kids were cruel – they simply didn’t have the emotional framework to interact with a kid in a wheelchair.
I remember a rare invite to a birthday party by a girl in my school who was kind enough to give me her Photostatted notes every day. My family was eternally grateful to her, furnishing her with gifts on every occasion they could find. I excitedly went to the birthday celebration at a new fast-food joint, eager to have a good evening. But as I reached the venue, children vacated the two seats next to mine, leaving me again in the usual social asylum. It was my folly. Why did I expect my classmates, who ignored my existence through six hours of school six days a week, to be different during those two hours?
To compensate for this lack of social interaction, I studied really hard, did well in exams, and became the class nerd. At least this prompted kids to come up to me before exams to clarify their “doubts”. But still the world was inaccessible to me, and I was inaccessible to the world. I was left with two choices – either be a grump and sit at home, or turn on the charm. I chose the latter.
Charming the crowds
I started actively working on the skills that would serve me well later in life. My family had a weekly ritual of dining at a restaurant, and I used these outings to test, practice and hone my humour on the wait staff. A rookie artist developing his craft, I faltered at first and, in hindsight, might even have sounded stupid. But gradually it came together and I improved.
My birthday party used to be a private affair, celebrated with my parents and younger brother. On one such low-profile birthday, my mother ordered a very expensive sugar-free cake. We had a wonderful dinner at my favourite Chinese restaurant. By the time it was time for desserts, the whole restaurant was packed. Having practiced on the wait staff for months, I decided to step up the charm and got the cake distributed among all the diners at the restaurant. Though my mother was mortified at the cake finishing in minutes, I was the king of the day, with everyone coming up to our table to wish me. That moment turned a spark into a flame – from then on, I’ve always gone out of my way to reach out to people from all walks of life, building connections and making friends.
India’s public spaces remain inaccessible to those of us who have disabilities, so we are not out in the public very often. This contributes to the vicious cycle, and people don’t know how to respond to us. I remember this one time from a year back when I was travelling from Hyderabad to Delhi when a female member of the ground staff came up to me.
Ground Hostess: “Why are you on a wheelchair?”
Me: “Because I’m disabled.”
Hostess: “Can you fly?”
Me (Flashing a smile): “No, but I assume your plane can.”
The next time I took a flight out of Hyderabad the same hostess came up to me and took a selfie with me.
It’s not like I dazzled her with Oscar Wilde level wit, but I communicated verbally and non-verbally that I want to engage with her as an equal. We live in an age where everybody and everything is marketed. News channels try to outdo one another on decibel levels, e-commerce websites bleed to offer ever-higher discounts, Bollywood actors create self-mocking YouTube videos to stay relevant. We, the disabled, are a part of this market too – it’s sad that most of us choose to attract sympathy that only leaves us stranded and side-lined. I’ve decided to charm the world till it loves me back.
Nipun Malhotra's Twitter handle @nipunmalhotra.