A journey of a different kind in Ladakh

Leh, Feb 21 (ANI): It has been a long journey for me, growing up in Ladakh and having all the aspirations of any ordinary girl who wants a happy life. Not for a moment did I imagine that I would find this happiness amongst the disabled people in Ladakh, those who struggle not only with the hard life in this icy desert terrain but with their own compromised abilities seeking a life of dignity which so many of us take for granted.

The turning point as I can now see was my participation in a training programme by a disability organisation around 10 years ago. It was essentially an exposure and sharing of information about the disability sector of which I had knowledge. As I watched, the hall where it was being held filled slowly; many of them on wheel chairs and some of them walking with the support of crutches. As I observed them, I gradually realized that many amongst them were unable to speak; some who could spoke in a garbled way.

Suddenly the world that is inhabited by disabled people became a reality for me, an uncomfortable reality. I was amongst them, yet not part of them. And frankly, in those initial moments, I was terrified. It was if I was confronting an ugly reality not outside but within, a reality that everyone outside me could see. The beginning of the session started with a prayer, which because of all these thoughts churning inside me, I was unable to recite. All I could do was close my eyes and listen and follow the hum of the recitation, which was happening in unison of voices around me.

Then suddenly it stopped and there was absolute silence. In that silence I came to an understanding. In a flash, it came to me, that it is not they who are disabled. It was I who was mentally disabled, clouded by my own prejudices, by an unfounded fear and perhaps a misplaced sense of what constitutes perfection.

It was clear that I had a long way to go in my own evolution, beginning now! That was the day that I, a young girl decided to devote my life to the cause of disability in my region, Ladakh.

Over the last ten years, I have made an attempt to understand the issues related to disability and started working closely with the people. I have realized that the rest of the world has closed their doors and hearts to the disabled people. I started to understand their capabilities and they have the potential to do all the work that the able-bodied people can do. Given an opportunity, they are capable of achieving everything in their lives.

My journey, my search, was greatly enriched by like- minded individuals with great commitment and vision to create a world of equal opportunities, where disabled could live with dignity I was associated with the Namgyal Institute for Research on Ladakhi Art and Culture (NIRLAC) which had a unit to promote disability issues.

But gradually many of those who were concerned with issues of the disabled felt that a rights-based approach needs to be adopted. One that would treat facilities and special provisions for the disabled not as a favour or largesse by the government but by virtue of inalienable rights granted under our Constitution and the rights framework formulated by national and international conventions. Under 'PAGIR', People's Action Group for Advocacy and Rights, we regrouped to begin our work for being treated at par with all others in terms of opportunities.

The work took me to remote villages in Ladakh. It was during this that I realized that the discomfort I had initially felt in that hall surrounded with people of varying disability was an emotion that was widespread. People were hiding their disabled children and I realized it was because of social stigma attached to it.

Disabled people hardly ventured out of their houses, due to prejudices in society. It was in the midst of this that we launched a village to village awareness campaign on disability, talking to people, disabled and abled alike and encouraging them to share their views and discuss. Gradually people opened up, questioning the very social mores that kept the disabled in a shroud of shame and secrecy.

This was the beginning then of not only my own personal transformation but of a social transformation. Since then with time and effort, the disabled started participating in the mainstream activities in the villages. This did not happen overnight. It took more than six to seven years. But it gave us the energy to take the issue to another level, one that could effect change in the ground situation.

After all, there are a whole slew of issues that need to be addressed by those in authority to enable a life of self-reliance, of equal opportunities and dignity for the disabled. We began to do advocacy with the government authorities on education, health and employment issues related to disabled in Ladakh.

We approached the LAHDC or the Ladakh Hill Development Council which is the 'Executive' looking into all matters of governance and policy at the local level. At the State level, we made advocacy efforts at the Jammu and Kashmir State government in Srinagar. Gradually, a momentum has been built up and people have begun to recognize the movement.

Still the road ahead is a difficult one. Public buildings in Ladakh are not built with access structures to facilitate movement of wheelchairs. Many laws only remain on paper. I have over time realized that the problem is basically in the mind-set. It is something that I too had and struggled to overcome.

If society or at least some people begin to view the disabled differently and not with a bias, then it will naturally follow that they will be treated with dignity and at par. So something fundamental needs to change in the hearts and minds of the Ladakhi people.

The Charkha Development Communications feels that if we create space there, then in the same way we take care of our children and old people in our families, the world will open out to accept disabled people and ensure their full participation in society. By Kunzang Dolma (ANI)

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