Just a steeper learning curve

Just a steeper learning curve

Be it shopping with family or digging out ammo for her research team, Summaiya Khan never allows her blindness to come in the way of her pursuits. “My parents, uncles and aunts taught me things, told me stories and gave me an idea of colour perception that makes me understand different shades and hues, though I can’t see,” Summaiya says.

The 25-year-old BA graduate in History, Economics and Political Science from Mount Carmel College is the first person with disability to work for the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) research wing, which is getting revved up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“My job at the research wing is to analyse the policies of the opposition and provide data for our spokespersons. Right now, I’m working at the state unit, but come elections 2019, we’ll be working closely with the national leadership,” she beams in excitement.

In a world where youngsters like her struggle to find jobs relevant to their qualification and aspirations, Summaiya is more an exception than the rule. It is not so much privilege but the willingness to learn and get comfortable with her situation that propels her.

Mention her disability and she talks about how she deals with it. The smile never fades, shoulders never droop and the glow never fades from her face.

Disability is not a struggle but a condition that makes the learning process interesting. As a college student, Summaiya took reams of Braille notes, but rather than discarding them after the course was over, she converted them into electronic text and gave them to her college library for future use. “That way, disability teaches you to take initiative and show people what you can do, instead of griping over challenges,” she says.

Kameshwari Kiran Kumar (34), an IT professional, regards her blindness as the best learning curve. As a child, she never flinched from working hard to prove that she was a perfect fit in a mainstream school. That experience exposed her to the challenges in an inclusive environment and her contribution in changing how people understand disability.

“Studying in an integrated (education) set-up allowed me to learn from both the able-bodied and the students with disability. The first thing you learn is not to get disconcerted with an unfamiliar situation, but to use it to discover new friends and enlighten people about your disability,” she says.

As an activist, innovator, trainer and tech enthusiast (besides working with an IT company), Deepa Narasimhan works on creating inclusive work experiences. “Disadvantages don’t exist only in disability. People who we regard as able-bodied have challenges of their own. We succeed as a society by fusing those experiences and creating opportunities for everyone,” she says.

Deepa discovered the magical world of computers and the internet when her disability confined her to her home for nearly 15 years. The offer to work with a multinational company was the spark she needed to take off and never look back.

While tech-empowerment has equipped these women to sail through most everyday challenges, they find a greater challenge in navigating around social attitude towards disability. “We’re taught to be on par with everyone, but being a woman with disability makes the society think that we’ve to limit our aspirations, especially on the job front,” Summaiya says.

“We’re often told to take the job because it’s ‘safe’ for a disabled woman, or ‘financially secure’ though it may be a total mismatch to our qualifications and career pursuits. Even with the support from the family, it’s not easy to ward off perception and how sometimes people ask us to behave like disabled, when we try to be like everyone else.”

Kameshwari regards social attitude as an opportunity to spread awareness. “People who see my husband (who’s able-bodied) tell him that he has given new life to (a disabled) woman. It amuses both of us, but we make it a point to educate them, telling them that we’ve given each other our lives,” she says.

Deepa believes social attitude is something that affects everyone. “This is not something confined to disability alone. Even able-bodied people face perception issues. What’s going for us, of course, is social media, which is taking awareness to all levels. Mindsets are getting better, things are getting better overall,” she says.

These women like to lift more women from their confines of disability and empower them to break social barriers. “The disability community as a whole struggles to access mainstream education,” Kameshwari points out. “We all know from experience that education alone can truly
empower us.”

“We’ve laid the foundation…now it’s time to put the building blocks in place. As people with disability, (in general) our workforce is just 5%. Job access should go beyond the IT sector and those like the government must now think how to map jobs with skills, instead of reservations,” Deepa says.