Shruti Pushkarna: Turning 50: From Preachy to Pragmatic

10 Mar,2022

Shruti PushkarnaBy Shruti Pushkarna

 

On December 3, 2019, International Day of Persons with Disability, I penned down my nascent thoughts on what the media must do in terms of disability representation and inclusion. Little did I know that it was the germination of a fortnightly series on ‘Media and Disability’.

 

As I wrote the next couple of columns, issues and ideas surfaced. It seemed an obvious and an imperative move to carry on writing, challenging perceptions, questioning people (authorities), raising my voice for India’s largest invisible minority.

 

The intent was clear. Urge the media to change the societal perception (read misconception), by creating awareness, broadening the scope of imagination, normalising the discourse on disability and recognising the potential of persons with disability.

 

This is my 50th attempt at shifting the focus to a ‘person first’ narrative, consciously steering away from either a disparaging or a heroic portrayal. Hundred weeks. Fifty columns. Phew!

 

Although an enriching journey, I must confess it wasn’t easy. I had my fair share of vindicating, glorifying and swimming upstream moments. But it’s been fulfilling nonetheless. As I revisit my past writings, I can chart the growth of the ‘disability advocate’ in me. Exploring different aspects of inclusion, gaining varied perspectives, treading unchartered territory, acknowledging influences, I have learnt to observe, absorb and respect, before I discern, judge or dismiss.

 

Initially, the columns called out the media on misrepresentation, stereotyping and shallow coverage of a community that constitutes 15 per cent of the global population. As the series was building a case for inclusion of disability in the mainstream agenda, the Covid pandemic struck.

 

Locked down in their spaces, every citizen experienced isolation first-hand. Being cut off from ‘normal’ modes of functioning was no longer exclusive to the disabled folk. This seemed like a great opportunity for cultivating empathy in an otherwise indifferent world.

 

This also appeared to be a great context for introducing solutions. Moving from a preachy, finger pointing mode to a more constructive approach. In the post Covid era where virtual replaced the physical, it was time to appreciate the empowering ability of technology for persons with disabilities. Through the column, the need for accessibility in all spheres, especially digital, was explained and emphasized. And champions of change were celebrated.

 

Personally, I gained more than what I set out to achieve. I was able to align my sensitivity towards disability with my journalistic experiences, churning out a realistic ask. Seeking accessible content, dignified reportage, outlying stereotypes and building a diverse workforce.

 

As for the experience of curating content, identifying patterns and researching statistics, I enjoyed it all. Some pieces were obviously more memorable, for the responses and reactions they garnered.

 

The cringeworthy display on television news channels, of Prime Minister Modi laying down the foundation stone of the Ayodhya Ram temple, riled me (and my TV production sensibility). The oversight of accessibility in a building that was yet to come up, led to a mince-no-words attack on the media and the powers that be. It led to some people, bhakts included, recognising the challenges a disabled, pregnant or a senior citizen could face visiting the site. (https://www.mxmindia.com/2020/08/ayodhya-ram-mandir-disabled-access/)

 

American polity and media also contributed to my arguments against othering. The piece on Invisible Disabilities, inspired from the American legal drama series, Boston Legal was received well. Persons living with chronic illnesses and invisible disabilities face greater rejection by society as their conditions are not apparent. Unfortunately, even today our understanding of disability and access is limited to ramps and wheelchairs. Young Marissa’s self-portrait titled ‘Happy Girl’ challenging her inability to smile in the conventional sense, remains a personal favourite. (https://www.mxmindia.com/2020/09/shruti-pushkarna-invisible-disabilities-missing-from-any-discourse-on-disability/)

 

US President Joe Biden’s swearing in ceremony was a trendsetter, presented with live captions, American Sign Language, audio description and other accessibility features on YouTube. The event featured speech and hearing impaired, 22-year-old poet laureate, Amanda Gorman flawlessly reciting her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’. (https://www.mxmindia.com/2021/01/shruti-pushkarna-disabled-lives-matter-time-to-take-a-cue-from-america/)

 

Then there was the piece applauding the fervent speech delivered by the first visually impaired Pakistan diplomat at the 76th UN General Assembly. A strong advocate of global peace, Saima Saleem made history by reading out her speech in braille at the international convention. (https://www.mxmindia.com/2021/10/shruti-pushkarna-a-fervent-spokesperson-first-disabled-after-has-the-media-finally-got-it-right/)

 

Finally, there was the explosive performance by India’s Paralympians. The historical medal tally forced the average citizen and the media to nationally acknowledge Para sports.  (https://www.mxmindia.com/2021/09/shruti-pushkarna-can-the-historic-paralympic-medal-tally-alter-our-perception-of-disability/)

 

The list goes on.

 

Striding towards a utopia where diversity is no longer scorned at, in the past two years I have learnt to redefine my own idea of ‘normal’. Looking forward to bringing you a sharper, riper view on disability inclusion as the column turns a quinquagenarian!

 

Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist who now works as a programmes and media specialist for the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Shruti was part of the founding team of MxMIndia and now writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna

 

 

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