SK, a visually impaired colleague recently had to go to Delhi for a workshop organised by the National Trust and would be returning alone. I had left instructions at both Delhi and Kolkata Airport for assistance to complete all the formalities. He sailed through Delhi Airport. When the flight landed at Kolkata, the Airlines ground staff met him with a wheelchair and insisted that he sit in it.
“Main admi hoon ya saaman”? SK said. “Kya Sir, bathiye…hum aapko aaram say le jayenge”, they said. He protested vehemently saying he was perfectly capable of walking. The staff very good humouredly ignored all his protests and wheeled him to the terminal and through all the procedures and outside to where his brother was waiting.
A funny story? Maybe to us, the so called “non-disabled.” Not, to SK and million others who face similar situations daily. Buses don’t stop for them, an occasional airlines have offloaded them, people don’t have the patience to stop and listen to them, don’t see them, don’t want to see them, pity them and dismiss them with at best, a “poor thing”. Them being Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). So many such discriminatory incidents from the highly offensive and insensitive to the downright ridiculous.
The ground staff just took it for granted that being disabled, he wasn’t capable. Of anything, at all. He felt very humiliated at being forcefully made to feel “incapable”.
For the vast majority of the non disabled, who normally don’t face PWDs very often, don’t know what to do or how to behave when they meet one. Either they leave it at “Poor thing” or lend a “helping hand” – one which is more disabling than enabling.
It’s Ok if one feels awkward with some one’s disability, if faced with it for the first time. What is not OK is the disregard or unawareness of the fact that a PWD is a person first – who can do some things and can’t do others, just like all of us. SK manages our NGO’s Braille printing unit along with working with visually impaired children in the villages of South 24 Parganas. He is perfectly capable of walking and negotiating his way through the crowded streets of Kolkata, using public transport and goes on frequent out station trips. He can speak, walk, talk, feel, hear and has emotions like all of us. And like all of us, he has a list of cannots. He also can't see.
While it is true that the ground staff meant no disrespect, and out of ignorance, equated disability with a wheelchair, which was of course taking things to ridiculous heights, this behaviour is indicative of the general apathy regarding PWDs and their dignity, their rights who are aftarall like us, citizens of an Independent Democratic Nation.