My third monitoring trip for the year took me back to the South of India, to the state of Karnataka more specifically. I was there to evaluate a Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Project which had been in existence for 6 and a half years. As we went from village to village visiting project beneficiaries it struck me that at the core of the fight for inclusivity & a barrier free existence for persons with disabilities was one underlying element, that of resilience.
In the backdrop of an orange setting sun, the local Disabled Persons Organisation (DPO) met in the shade of their local community hall. Here I watched as women with disabilities spoke openly and proudly of their ability to raise their voices and lobby for their rights. Having admitted that prior to project initiation, they often felt challenged to draw on their agency to effectively articulate their grievances. It was easy to see the impact that had occurred in these women’s ability to influence their local structures towards sustainable and inclusive change in the future.
However, there still remained immense challenges for participants of this project, of which I observed on the last day of my visit.
As I sat in the Partner office towards the end of the afternoon I observed a curious but quiet young lady who made her entrance flanked by female family members. As she passed me by I noted a pronounced sense of observation and wisdom of which was beyond her meagre 14 years of existence. When I attempted to introduce myself I ascertained that she had been born with a hearing and speech impairment which prevented her from being easily able to interact with others. Due to the rural conditions of her upbringing and a lack of knowledge about disability and ENT services, she had never been screened, received treatment or learned sign language. As my colleague attempted to interact with her, she learnt from her Aunt, who instinctively answered on her niece’s behalf, that this young lady’s only form of communication with the outside world was through basic hand gestures and written word.
In that moment, I remember thinking how is it possible to exist with such limited forms of communication? What made this situation even worse in my mind was an inability towards any form of self-expression beyond the conveyance of basic needs. For a teenager especially, what an isolating existence it seemed to me and yet here was this girl, silently but emphatically fighting to continue her education and lead a fulfilling life. Resilience, there was that element again, more and more pronounced as I continued to encounter it.
As I wound up my visit I reflected on how easy it was to revert to sympathy and a welfare model of operation by considering this girl as a victim. But she is anything but that. Yes, she may live below the poverty line and face endemic challenges to her existence due to her impairment. However, she remains a resourceful and capable being who simply requires assistance towards the provision of opportunities to empower herself and thereby determine the direction of her own existence.
I couldn’t help but think about what this young lady’s life will look like in a years’ time when she is assisted to learn sign language and be openly able to communicate. Through such a small gesture, alongside educating her teachers and peers about inclusive education techniques, her scope for change, growth and quality of life have increased exponentially in the blink of an eye.