The Power of a Story: Perceptions and Attitudes Towards People with Disabilities

How does a blind person brush his teeth in the morning? How would he be able to put toothpaste on his toothbrush without it spilling over or falling off? Sharing the story of his first few days at Enable India, Dipesh Sutariya, CEO, recounted some of the questions that he initially had. As I listened, I pondered over them. Though this task may be straightforward for you, it would become difficult if you were to wake up tomorrow morning temporarily blind. The mundane would become disorienting, as a sense that you use for almost everything is suddenly not there. Perhaps this experience would make you more aware of the value of your sight in enabling you to do things you otherwise would not be able to do. To a person who lives every day without sight, however, many of these tasks are still trivial, provided one has some unconventional thinking and a desire to come up with solutions to one’s own problems. To solve the toothbrush challenge, for example, you just have to put some toothpaste onto your finger, rub it on your teeth, and then start brushing with your toothbrush. 

Since I joined Enable India, my AIF Fellowship host organization, I have been confronted with stories, challenges, and solutions that have broadened my thinking on what is humanly possible. Based in Bangalore, Enable India works to empower people with disabilities by providing them with skills training and job placement assistance, with the ultimate goal of achieving economic independence. They partner with hundreds of corporations in India to open up jobs for people with disabilities. What’s more, they work across 14 disability types, including vision impairment, hearing impairment, physical disabilities, autism, and intellectual disability.1 Shanti Raghavan, the founder of Enable India, was first exposed to the challenges that people with disabilities face in India by witnessing her brother’s experience going through university and later trying to find a job while being blind. India has few schools and universities that are accessible for people with disabilities, as both the facilities and the methods of instruction are typically not designed with them in mind. At a recent recruitment drive organized by Enable India for people with visual impairments, several candidates shared their experiences of not being able to complete their education because their institutions refused to provide accommodations to help them learn in lectures and take their exams. Even if one is able to overcome these challenges, finding employment is difficult as most companies will not consider hiring a person with a disability. Among the 50% of people with disabilities that are of employable age, only 36% are employed. Of these, a staggering 90% are employed in the informal sector, meaning their jobs often have low pay, offer few opportunities for career advancement, and have virtually no worker protections.2

Two visually impaired people sitting in front of computers.
Students with visual impairments use computers equipped with screen readers and high visibility customizations.
A row of students at computers, while a teacher looks on
Students in the advanced employability training learn computer skills that will enable them to get jobs.

Society often views people with disabilities through the lens of pity. They tend to be defined solely by their disability, their inability to do certain things, which leads to their exclusion from being full, active participants in society. Furthermore, the prevailing attitudes towards people with disabilities tend to be patronizing and condescending. Recently, in an attempt to change the mindset around disability, the government of India has started using the term “divyang” (meaning divine ability in Sanskrit) to refer to people with disabilities. Disability rights activists objected to the use of the word, arguing that it is dehumanizing as it prevents them from being treated as equals, as complex individuals who are not defined by their disabilities.3, 4 Furthermore, the disabled community was not consulted about the use of this term, demonstrating the lack of empowerment people with disabilities have even when it comes to the language by which they are referred. Enable India’s approach is different; instead of treating people with disabilities as unfortunate souls to be pitied or as divinely gifted, they focus on what they can do and how they are just the same as everyone else. 

A tactile board that shows what different font options look like.
Students at Enable India with visual impairments learn to visualize various aspects of how a computer works through tactile diagrams that allow them to trace with their fingers.

A term that is used a lot at Enable India and informs much of the organization’s philosophy is “dominant story.” A dominant story is an overarching narrative that one has about a particular person, place, or idea. A dominant story has no place for nuance or complexity and reflects our biases with things that are different from ourselves. When we take our own limited experiences and try to frame everyone we encounter in terms of what we know, we end up constructing a dominant story that often drastically mischaracterizes them and prevents us from seeing the whole picture. Now, it’s important to note that dominant stories are not necessarily bad, in fact, they’re actually necessary for us to be able to go about our daily lives and make decisions, synthesizing the torrent of information that is being constantly thrown at us. However, not recognizing our dominant stories leads us to become overconfident in our understanding of the world and resistant to new perspectives. 

Enable India is trying to break the dominant story around disability. To be blunt, people simply don’t think that people with disabilities are capable of doing anything productive, of contributing to society in any way. In conversations with my coworkers, I have learned that for the most part, people expect those with disabilities to just stay at home, eternally dependent on their families and the kindness of others to survive. In order for people with disabilities to achieve equality, society has to become comfortable with the idea that a disability need not be a shackle that imprisons one to the confines of the home, but instead that people with disabilities can lead full and enriching lives, achieving the same goals and aspirations that anyone else might have. 

From what we’ve just discussed, you might be thinking that the “dominant story” concept applies only to non-disabled folk in their perception of people with disabilities. In fact, oftentimes the people with disabilities themselves have deeply ingrained dominant stories about their own capabilities and self-worth that are a result of growing up in a society that diminishes and devalues them. Imagine if as a child you were told not to bother with getting an education and finding employment, that you should not try to strive for more. It’s only natural that you would end up internalizing these beliefs about yourself, thus fulfilling society’s expectations. A colleague who manages Enable India’s rural development programs explained to me the challenge of finding serious applicants to their initiatives. Enable India conducts free skills training and entrepreneurship courses in rural areas of Karnataka that focus on the needs of the rural population. People come from surrounding villages and towns to attend, so it is necessary to provide them with housing and food for the duration of the courses. Unfortunately, many of the attendees do not come with the intention of learning new skills and uplifting their lives by finding employment. Instead, many are only interested in the food and housing that are provided; they know that for the duration of the course their basic needs will be met. These attendees do not aspire towards independence; they don’t even realize that they are capable of working. Being brought up with the belief that they don’t have any capabilities has killed their motivation and drive to learn. Furthermore, the lack of role models of successful people with disabilities in rural parts of India also propagates the prevailing attitude, as there isn’t anyone to look up to as a counterexample to the societal beliefs. Thus, Enable India recognizes that it is imperative to focus on changing the self-image that the people we serve have. Large parts of Enable India’s training programs are dedicated not towards any specific skill, but instead towards helping the candidate build their aspirations and self-respect, so they can go out into society with confidence. Candidates are taught to believe in themselves and how to solve their own problems, a crucial step towards independence. By breaking the candidates’ dominant stories about themselves, they are empowered to write their own destinies. 

A room with several stalls in which people are sitting and selling various items
Enable India’s “Santhe” initiative. Candidates learn entrepreneurship skills by setting up stalls for businesses and selling products.

 

Three people making signs in sign language
Staff at Enable India learning Indian Sign Language

Approximately 40% of the staff working at Enable India have a disability. Coming from all across India, from cities as well as villages, and with different types of disabilities, each has a rich and unique story, making everyday conversations with coworkers illuminating opportunities to understand the broad spectrum of experiences that people with disabilities can have. Through my interactions with my coworkers and candidates being trained, I have found my own perspective and dominant stories beginning to shift. I was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS), a condition that affects the bone structure of one’s face. I also have hearing loss in both my ears, which is a common symptom of TCS. To counteract my hearing loss I wear hearing aids, which essentially nullify the effect of my disability in everyday life. I am fortunate to have access to such a technology, but have often wondered how my life might have been different had I been born in a time when hearing aids were not available, or to a family that could not afford them. Listening to the stories of people around me has taught me the impact that solutions like hearing aids have on the lives of people with disabilities. Disability focused solutions allow people to communicate, travel, work, and perform just about all of the critical tasks that one needs to do in daily life. I have learned that educating people about the solutions that are available is one of the most effective ways to counter the dominant story that people have of disability being a limiting factor. When you show someone how a person with cerebral palsy is able to use a computer with a joystick and foot pedals, their view of what people with disabilities are able to do will radically change.

As I continue my journey at Enable India I will no doubt hear more stories of resilience, problem-solving, and growth. I hope to use these stories to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities by educating and inspiring people, both with and without disabilities, to look at the ability instead of the disability. Though the dominant story may seem impossible to dislodge, I am confident that the rich variety of lived experiences out there will eventually prove more compelling and bring about full equality.


References

[1] “Enable India.” Home – EnableIndia.org, 2019, www.enableindia.org.

[2] Employment of Disabled People in India. 2009, Employment of Disabled People in India, www.dnis.org/Employment.pdf.

[3] Jyoti, Archana. “What’s the Correct Word? A Little Sensitivity Goes a Long Way!” The Pioneer, 26 July 2018.  www.dailypioneer.com/2018/india/whats-the-correct-word-a-little-sensitivity-goes-a-long-way.html.

[4] Nagarajan, Rema. “PM Uses `Divyang’ for the Disabled, Upsets Activists: Delhi News – Times of India.” The Times of India, 23 Jan. 2016. timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/PM-uses-divyang-for-the-disabled-upsets-activists/articleshow/50698095.cms.

Anant is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Enable India in Bangalore, Karnataka. For his Fellowship project, he is building scalable products to support economic independence and dignity for persons with disabilities through online tools and resources for employers, employees, and enablers. Anant graduated in 2018 with a degree in computer science and a minor in statistics. He is interested in exploring the applications of technology in solving large-scale social issues as well as the challenges of implementing them in developing countries. Anant has worked at various technology companies and research labs, and is looking forward to both applying the skills that he has gained as well as honing new skills during the AIF Clinton Fellowship. He is excited about his placement with Enable India, where he will be working to empower people with disabilities. While in India, he hopes to experience parts of the country that he hasn't seen in the past and gain a deeper understanding of its culture and diversity.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Us

Stay up to date on the latest news and help spread the word.

AMERICAN INDIA FOUNDATION IS A REGISTERED 501 (C)(3) Charity. © 2019
NEW YORK | CALIFORNIA | NEW DELHI

Privacy Policy

Get Involved

Our regional chapters let you bring the AIF community offline. Meet up and be a part of a chapter near you.

Join a Chapter