It’s Actually Us Who are the Ones with the Disability”

 Tsering’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

“It’s actually us who are the ones with the disability”

In the warmth of Mysore’s January in Southern India, a classroom in the corner of the JSS Polytechnic is a buzz with excitement of students, AIF fellows, translators, and university faculty. It was the first time I was interacting with students with disability, and I was struck by the brilliance of the students’ intelligence and positivity. We initially met the students in their elements in classrooms learning computer coding, architectural design, calculus, systems management, jewelry design, and many more. I was amazed by the academic rigor of the subjects the students were studying and I couldn’t help feeling lost in the Sine and Cosine arithmetic that the students seem to have no trouble following along. While sitting in on some their classes, it was amazing to see how flawlessly the instructors incorporated sign language into lessons and how friendly the facilities on the campus were to persons with disability. There were guard rails engraved in braille so the students with visual impairment could decipher which department they were entering; there were wheelchair accessible paths for the students who had mobility challenges. Most importantly, there was a strong support network for the students among their peer cohorts as well as their instructors; it felt like an extended family microcosm on the campus. The campus exuded an atmosphere of possibilities, creativity, and hope.

Shadowing Students at JSS Polytechnic, Mysore Where Teacher is Signing the Lesson to the Students

Despite the enabling environment of the campus, the students are brutally aware of the realities outside their campus and how the world sees them as fragile and with lesser abilities. Parents of the students often are unsupportive of their children—the sentiment arising from fear for their children and the sense of protectionism; however, as our facilitators of ABLE clarified, persons with disability, given the opportunity and support, can and have been contributing back to the society in a productive manner. The students again and again proved how resilient they are despite the hurdles they face every day which others –me included—were unaware of. When we asked through a sign language translator what the students find the most frustrating about how people without disability treat them, the students responded that they hate when people look at them with pity or see them as helpless and fragile which is far from the truth. It is at this point that I realized the truth of what the sign language interpreter had said, “It’s actually us who has the disability not being able to comprehend people with disabilities when they can fully comprehend what we are saying.”

Asking Students About Their Experience Through a Sign Language Interpreter

After posing for group pictures and signing goodbye to the students, I started to internally reflect on that we experienced and learned from the students in Mysore. Initially unaware about the disability movement, the ABLE conference in Karnataka helped start a discussion and made me become more aware about the cross-cutting – both domestically in India and globally – issue that disability movement is. The following days we met with the Director of EnAble India, an NGO that works to empower persons with disability and provide employment opportunities, an innovation incubation lab designed by and for peoples with disability. We also had the privilege of visiting Cheshire Homes in Bangalore where we learned about the history of the disability movement in India, followed by an invitation to the graduation ceremony of the student from Cheshire Homes into independent, employed persons. Meeting persons with disabilities who have received some form of training and now working in a big departmental store and in a community store opened my eyes to the potential that lies within them. All it needs is an enabling environment to be unleashed. From our brief stay in Bangalore and Mysore, Karnataka for the ABLE conference, I took away so much, but more importantly I found that I have much more to learn so that I can be a conscious and ethical ally and advocate of the disability movement.

A Fun Game of Wheelchair Tic-Tac-Toe at the Sport Center Hosted by Volunteers of Enable India

The Ability Based Livelihood Empowerment (ABLE) is one of the signature programs of the American India Foundation which trains persons with disabilities and facilitates their entry into the job market through advocacy, promoting inclusive growth in India.

Tsering was born in Tibet and raised in a Tibetan Refugee school in India before immigrating to the United States. She studied international relations, focusing on environmental sustainability and global health, and minored in biology from American University. She created and co-led her university’s month-long study-service program to Tibetan Refugee settlements in Northern India to study the impacts of political identity on the social health of the refugees. Originally intending to pursue a medical education, her volunteer experiences abroad in the hospitals of the Philippines and India inspired her passion for global health and the political ecology of disease. Prior to joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Tsering worked as a laboratory associate at Yale New Haven Hospital and interned at an international development NGO. In her free time, Tsering enjoys drawing, traveling, learning new languages and exploring new cultures.

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