Shruti Pushkarna: Does disability make social engagements less gratifying?

13 Jan,2022

By Shruti Pushkarna


Shruti PushkarnaI personally love the winter season in Delhi. December and January are my favourite months, as long as the sun keeps shining. I enjoy stepping out after layering up adequately. But winter rain can be a downer.  Moist and gray outside, chilly inside, it’s hard to feel anything but gloom.


Needless to say, it’s even more discomfiting to be locked in because of the rampant virus. The lack of choice, of going out to work, shop or meet someone, puts us under stress, unconsciously.


In such harsh times, the idea of catching up with a friend over a steaming cup of tea or cocoa is exhilarating.  It’s the easiest, most casual thing for us to do. Call a pal, sibling or cousin, pick a café and chill. I have a list of catch ups planned once the Covid numbers start abating.


Social engagements are intrinsic to human beings. A sonorous fact of the post Covid times. When we speak of inclusion, whether it’s gender, caste or disability, the conversations are mostly centred around empowerment through employment.


We (organisations, governments, individuals) often underscore the need for social integration. Apart from the sense of dignity that comes with economic self-reliance, persons with disabilities (just like you and me) aspire for societal acceptance.


Let’s take five commonplace scenarios which offer some form of gratification or liberation to us. And then picture if the 2.68 crore disabled population and 13.8 crore elderly (who may live with temporary disability or limitations in mobility, reading et cetera) feel the same way.


1. As a woman and a working professional, driving gives me a sense of freedom. The fact that I don’t have to depend on anyone to shuttle me back and forth, or worry about hailing a taxi and contracting the virulent Omicron, is liberating. You can argue that disabled people cannot drive with their physical limitations. True. But there are ample solutions in the market. Here’s a picture of a paraplegic who drives himself around in a modified hand-controlled car.


2. Catching the latest releases in a theatre nearby. And topping up the screening experience with popcorn and soda. How many wheelchair users have you encountered in a cinema hall? Even though some theatres have special access to a few seats. Did you know that a blind person relies on audio description to follow the visual narrative? A lot of OTT content on popular platforms like Amazon and Netflix now have audio described productions. Even if the disabled chap were to make it to the movies, can she or he really make an independent trip to the snack bar?


3. Going out on a lunch date involves picking your favourite cuisine and the right ambience. Not so easy for someone with a disability, which often prevents them from even planning one. They have to ensure if the place is physically accessible for a wheelchair or a crutch or a walker. This includes entry/exit points, washrooms and seating area. Have you had to worry about a braille menu or a sign language interpreter for your meals?


4. Shopping for clothes, shoes, bags or household stuff can be cathartic. But picking up something for yourself or a loved one is not easy if the shopping plaza isn’t accessible. Again, access is not defined in terms of physical navigation alone. The entire shopping experience has to be disabled friendly, including human assistance, secure transactions, quiet spaces for someone on the autism spectrum, and so on. Icing on the cake would be clothes and accessories designed for persons with disabilities. Online shopping does take care of some of these issues, except it’s not as delightful for those who enjoy the old school touch and feel version. A couple of years ago, Future Group’s Big Bazaar took a step towards making shopping inclusive and accessible.


5. What better way of winding down in bed with an enjoyable book. I restrain myself from entering bookshops because of the urge to buy every interesting title. But if I want it, I can simply pick it off the shelf and start reading. Books have a way of expanding our imagination by transporting us into different settings. Can visually impaired people get a taste of something they will never see, by just reading about it? Yes of course. Except they access books in audio formats. Incidentally, India was the first nation to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty, an international legal instrument which makes it easier for blind and other print disabled people to access works protected by copyright. Yet, I know so many who struggle to find accessible books for their reading pleasure.


In the last few years, I have made a lot of new friends who live with some form of disability. They share my urge to eat out, travel, gossip and splurge. Basic social engagements reiterate the ‘normal’, giving a chance to form connections without prejudice.


Unfortunately, media portrayals hardly focus on the scope of collective light-hearted human indulgences, irrespective of (dis)abilities. Either disability is ridiculed, or treated too gravely, making it abnormal in some way.


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