Breaking stereotypes at India’s first inclusive fest for Persons with Disabilities

12 Jan,2023



By Shruti Pushkarna


Shruti PushkarnaThe year 2023 couldn’t have opened on a better note, or shall I say, ‘inclusive’ note. India witnessed its first ever large-scale inclusive festival for persons with disabilities in Goa from January 6 to 8. Purple Fest was a unique initiative of the state government, supported by the Office of State Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities and collaborating NGOs from across the country.


Over five thousand delegates witnessed this novel amalgamation of different stakeholders including, persons with disabilities, parents, academicians, rehabilitation professionals, disability rights advocates, government officials, employers, entrepreneurs, trainers, technology experts, students, NGO representatives, media and civil society members.


Fortunate to be in the middle of all action, I was in awe of the organising and ground level teams who worked tirelessly to curate an experience that was distinctively discerning. The three-day convention had parallel events and activities running in and around the Entertainment Society of Goa in Panaji, attracting curious crowds. Exhibits of products, services and solutions, experience zones, discussions around inclusive education, employment sports and policy, interactions with achievers and changemakers, music, games, dance, cruise ride, bird walk, movie screenings, marathon, car rally, sporting events and more. It was an action-packed jamboree!


Purple Ambassadors for 21 disabilities at the opening ceremony of the Purple Fest


And all done with the prime objective of including and sensitising the society towards the varied needs, solutions, issues and aspirations of persons with disabilities. According to Census 2011, Goa features in the list of states with low percentage of disabled population of around 32,000. But recent reports indicate a sharp rise in the overall number of disabled persons in the last few years. And the State Social Welfare Department is determined to create awareness as well as make infrastructure and services accessible to all. Purple Fest is one such step in this direction.


Now that I have set the context, let me tell you why this event matters. Foremost, persons with disabilities were seen live in action, belying and breaking stereotypes. Age old images fixated in the minds of people were challenged.


All events and activities had inclusion interwoven into them, true to the spirit of Leaving No One Behind. Physical spaces were made accessible with ramps, elevators, braille signage, QR powered navigation app and so on. Ensuring access for every attendee, there was audio description, sign language interpretation, tactile signing, captions and more. It was all done in a precise and yet matter-of-fact manner, emphasising (to the excluding majority) that it doesn’t take too much, only a mindset shift towards accepting the ‘other’.


This was evident from the experiences shared by some people who participated in a car rally where persons with blindness were teamed up with sighted drivers for a 35km-ride. The visually impaired person used a braille map to help the sighted driver navigate his or her way through. During the rally, the conversations and interdependence experienced by both parties resulted in building friendships and potential long-term relationships between the sighted and visually impaired communities.


Apprehensions gave way to curiosity, finally translating into a change in perception. The lifecycle of any person (including those with disability) involves parenting, education, skilling, employment, healthcare and social welfare. The various exhibits demonstrated how persons with disability and their surrounding community could ensure independent activities of daily living as well as equal access to all services and facilities.


There were grassroots and technological innovations on display, making possible for a person with disability to walk, sit, eat, read, write, watch, cook and play independently or with little help. Assistive aids and devices made it possible for them to conduct science experiments, solve math equations, withdraw cash from an ATM, access smart appliances and even drive on their own.


I could go on because there were many hits at the Purple Fest. The biggest one being the representation of Purple Ambassadors for each of the 21 types of disabilities listed in the Right of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. It was a historic moment captured by crowds, cameras and crews where so many different disabilities were seen walking the talk.


The Goan dailies and social media platforms were abuzz with stories from the Purple Fest. The inclusion advocate in me was both rooting and scouting for in-depth coverage of this magical manifestation of ability. But I was disappointed with the surface level reportage focused essentially on already famous government officials, disabled achievers and stalwarts in respective domains.


What was missing from the media discourse were the raw, heartwrenching accounts of ordinary (average) persons with disability who managed to overcome challenges in personal and professional spaces. The media missed the chance to recount the stories of Purple Ambassadors of 21 disabilities, especially the lesser understood ones like haemophilia, sickle cell disease, blood disorder and other invisible disabilities.


Fifty-eight-year-old Umesh Salagar from Pune touched many hearts while recapitulating the struggles of a 10-year-old who lost both his parents, forced to earn and study simultaneously, thankfully with some help from his landlady and primary school teacher, only to be later shocked by the death of his young wife, leading to a life with Parkinson’s disease.


Manju Sharma representing chronic neurological disability, shared the sudden turn of events in her life and the gradual journey of acceptance. A jetsetting air hostess had to reset and reorient to a life with acquired neurological conditions that aren’t easily comprehended. She is now gainfully employed in Naomundi, Jharkhand.


Persons with mental illness and learning disability as well as deaf people shared their excruciating trauma of being excluded at various stages in life by a society that scores rather low on empathy. Walking around the venue, having a cup of coffee, listening to the panel discussions, interacting with the 21 representatives, looking at simple solutions and performances, most people experienced innumerable eureka moments.


Did the show of strength and glimpse of an equitable co-existence fail to stir up the media’s sensibility and responsibility towards its citizens?


So why are we publishing this column on an A&M site? Well, we strongly feel that the media can dramatically transform the world of persons with disabilities. And this series can help bring forth issues that the media must champion to create a truly inclusive and accessible India. To write this column, we invited Shruti Pushkarna, a former journalist who now works as Director, EnAble India where she heads North India operations as well as media and communications outreach. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. To access the archives of all her 60-plus columns, please visit: /columns/shruti-pushkarna/


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