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Obliterating the line between the disabled and non-disabled

Jul 15, 2008

Struck by polio when she was barely two, Dr Anita Ghai has had to undergo two heart surgeries and a painful treatment for breast cancer. In a forthcoming radio interview to OneWorld South Asia, she talks passionately about the issues of disabled people in India and about her own struggles.

Dr Anita Ghai, 49, is a Reader in Jesus and Mary College of Delhi University. She has been teaching psychology there since 1984.

She had an attack of polio when she was two years old. But that did not deter her from pursuing her studies and other interests in life. She went on to do her graduation and finished with doctorate in psychology from Delhi University.

She has extensively travelled all over the world and is an avid activist, fighting for the rights of disabled people. She also has a book to her credit titled Disembodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women.

In an interview to OneWorld South Asia for its radio programme, Ek Duniya Ek Awaaz, she talks passionately about the problems and issues of disabled people in India, as also about her own experiences of life.

To listen to the full interview you can tune in to AIR FM Rainbow India 102 MHz on Wednesday (July 16) at 16:30 hrs (IST).

Here are the excerpts.

OWSA: First of all we want to know about your life.

Anita Ghai: I was two when I had an attack of polio. After that I have had a ‘loving relationship’ with doctors. I was always good at studies. Having completed my schooling I joined Indraprastha College of Delhi University from where I did my graduation and later post graduation. Afterwards I did my M. Phil and Ph.D from the Department of Psychology from Delhi University.

Then I took up a job in Jesus and Mary College. At that point of time in life I used to have three things – music, studies and cricket. I had deep interest in all three of them. I never felt I was missing anything in life.

But as time passed several other thoughts came to mind. But then I consoled myself thinking that such things happen and this is how life goes on.

OWSA: Can you tell us about the most difficult times in your life?

AG: This was when I started realising that I too was a woman. The idea of getting married and having kids of my own fascinated me. But now when I ponder over it I understand that even marriage is not a guarantee to happiness. Yet the thought tormented me that I would have to live like a single woman. This feeling of being lonely was quite excruciating.

For 3-4 years I was in a very depressive state because this thought was somehow getting under my skin that there was no companionship for me. Although there was everyone around me – friends, brothers, sisters, parents, everyone. Yet it was a challenge for me to be able to compromise this lack of companionship.

OWSA: Who would you reckon as the most supportive person in your difficult time such as this?

AG: My parents and other family members have always stood by me – be it illness or any other trouble. Three years ago I had breast cancer and I had to undergo chemotherapy. That time also all of them came to support me. In those days I never felt that there was anybody who had not come to see me. They never made me feel: ‘Oh one more disease!’ They always said this too would pass!!

My father had always been very supportive of me. He always inspired me to do something for fellow disabled people so that they could live their lives in a better world.

OWSA: How do you see your role being a woman in this male dominated society? Do you ever face any difficulties for being a woman?

AG: In a patriarchal society the identity of a woman is never recognised. I was fortunate that this kind of atmosphere was not there in my home. I was the eldest daughter in the house. After a gap of almost 65 years, a girl child was born in my family. So everyone was excited.

But I have always felt that my other disabled friends, especially women, have had to face tremendous difficulties -both as being a woman and that too a disabled one. They are treated as burdens. Now perhaps the things are changing a bit.

OWSA: We hear that compared to other countries there are very little facilities available to disabled people in India. Do you agree?

AG: Yes, it is true that in other countries disabled people have more facilities. In our country also, we have now laws like Equal Opportunities Act, which was enacted in 1996. This has facilitated many changes.

I remember that I wanted to sit for Indian Administrative Services (IAS) exams but I was prevented from doing so on account of my disability. But the time since then and now has changed a lot.

Where we still lack most is in the area of accessibility. Disabled people still cannot go to places of their choice. There should be more facilities for people with visual, hearing or intellectual impairment. They must also be given proper education and employment opportunities.

OWSA: How should society treat the physically or mentally challenged people?

AG: Firstly, let me tell you that I find the word ‘challenged’ very problematic. Every individual is challenged one or the other way. We should not think that only disabled people are challenged and not the others. The change in attitude is the most important thing. You cannot have negative attitude and condescending approach towards disabled people.

OWSA: Do you want to give any message for those parents whose children are disabled?

AG: The first thing I want to tell them is that never think that your child is inferior in any manner. I accept that there will be problems that you may have to face. You never know how many Stephen Hawkings you can produce.

When people look at me I consider myself as a role model, or rather I should say that I think it necessary to look at myself as role model to make them feel that no child is inferior in any way.

Yes, they need opportunities. They need education, which can change their outlook. Here the government, activists and other civil society members can pitch in to create such opportunities for the disabled so that they do not develop inferiority complex; so that they are not treated as burden on society.

OWSA: Everyone has a dream. Did you also have one?

AG: Not one but many. But my biggest dream is to create a positive identity for my fellow disabled people. I want all the facilities for them so that they do not take life as a burden. I want to obliterate the line between the ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’.

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