Squaring the Circle

June 30, 2020 at 9:15 PMJun (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

While playing with his five-year old nephew visiting India, Dr. Aravinda Bhat (35) is asked by the young boy, “What happened to your eyes?” and Aravinda explains to him: “It is called Retinitis Pigmentosa in medical terms,” and then after elaborately explaining how the eyes function he tells his nephew, “in case of ‘my eyes pigments are formed on the retina which slowly spread. Because of this the vision gets blurred.”

The question is posed as a matter of fact and the answer is delivered as a matter of fact, like any normal conversation.

Remembering pages from the autobiographical book of Stephen Kuusisto, an American author of Finish origin, Aravinda says, “His parents could not accept his blindness and expected him to behave like a normal person,” and goes on to say, “To my luck, my parents never forced me to be or act normal.” He immediately says, “I discard the word ‘normal’ from my lexicon,” and explains his position: “What is considered as ‘normal’ is not a given but is decided by society and imposed on individuals who are expected to either coincide or align with it to be considered ‘normal’.”

Aravinda mentions how his parents brought him up like any child. “My vision was slightly better back in my childhood and I went to a ‘normal’ school, played cricket and also used to ride a bicycle,” he says and adds, “Some of our neighbours had asked my mother back then why would she let me ride a cycle and all she said was: He can so he does. That was phenomenal of her.” Recollecting these he says till he turned eight he hadn’t realized he was different or in the words of the world, ‘disabled’. “I was just myself,” he says.

Going back to the autobiographical writings of Steven Kuusisto whose blindness was not accepted by his parents and who was bullied by his classmates in school, Aravinda says, “I must say I was never bullied and no teacher discriminated against me in school.” But then, as he says, it is not the case with everyone. If the author Steven Kuusisto, whose memoirs Aravinda studied for his Doctoral research, had traumatic experiences in school, a classmate of Aravinda in class one, whose name he cannot remember now had an equally horrible experience. “We had a classmate who was visibly different because of some intellectual disability. All our classmates would bully him. I remember one of our classmates coming and asking me to join them in beating this boy up. Good sense prevailed and I did not join. After a few days his mother came and took him from school. He never returned. My vision, though blurred, was slightly better back then so I could see his mother taking him from his chair. It still plays in my mind like a scene from a film. We all collectively excluded one boy!” says Aravinda before telling the tale of another boy from Kasargod, his ancestral place. “There is a boy who is blind. His parents feared their son being bullied by other students if sent to school. So they never sent him to school,” narrates Aravinda and exclaims, “With no education there is no possibility of him becoming independent, which is such a sad thing!”

Weaving the stories of his own life and the lives with which his lives have intersected Aravinda says, “As far as I am concerned, I must say that I have been privileged,” and adds, “There are many forces acting here,” before explaining his privileges. “My parents are educated. Four generations before me has been educated. I come from an upper middle class, upper caste family. All of this has certainly made a difference,” he explains before adding, “The school where I studied in treated me well because I came from the family of a Doctor. But all of this helped me get foundational education which is such an important thing.”

Stressing on the importance of education Aravinda says, “Within the given system the beginning of positive action can be education. Without education the possibilities of living a full life will be denied to us,” and asserts, “Education is the first need, first step.”

Among educators, Aravinda says, there are two arguments with regard to the education of disabled people. One believes there must be special schools for the disabled, and the other believes the disabled must be made a part of the usual schooling system. Both, he believes, have their own advantages and disadvantages. “Had I gone to a blind school my world would have been limited to blind people. I wouldn’t have learnt the social skills to be around the sighted people,” he says but doesn’t forget to add, “But many blind students suffer a lot in the so called ‘normal’ school because of bullying by fellow students and because of insensitive teachers.” The solution for this, he says, is in education itself. “Teachers during their B.Ed. training must be sensitised to work around disabled students. Textbooks should expose students to stories and poems which speak about disability in a positive light, in a dignified way and not in a comic way or with pity. In this way, children at a young age must be sensitised to disabled people by exposing them to fellow humans who are disabled and be taught to accept differences with respect,” he spells out in detail. He gets back to Steven Kuusisto again and tells how he, after being sent to a ‘normal’ school, faced great difficulty in learning because the school was not equipped with the resources required to teach disabled students. Due to this, he writes in his autobiographical book, he felt that his education was not rounded, not complete. “Everyone’s needs are different and those should be attended to without discrimination or exclusion,” emphasizes Aravinda.

Despite the Right to Education Act we get to hear of schools across the country denying admission to students with bodily differences on flimsy grounds points Aravinda and says in several places the parents of the ‘normal’ students oppose the intake of disabled students. “It is as if disability is contagious,” he remarks.

“Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of barriers for us,” states Aravinda. One, he says is structural barriers and the other, he says, is attitudinal barriers.

“Back in the days between 2002 and 2005, I got admitted in a college that is five kilometres away from home. I used to take a bus go to the neighbouring town, get down, cross the road, walk to the college, all by myself. Back then my vision was slightly better than what it is today and the number of vehicles on road was also less. Plus the architecture of the college I went was something I could navigate, though the needs of the disabled were not taken into consideration in constructing the space,” explains Aravinda and adds, “But if someone using a wheelchair had to attend the same college the given space couldn’t have accommodated them.”

Half of the problems of the disabled people will be solved, opines Aravinda, if the environment is made accessible to “us.”

“We are denied opportunities by saying it will be difficult for us to cut through the spaces. Our bodies are blamed and our lives are made to feel limited. Our lives have been termed abnormal because society hasn’t given proper thought to include us,” Arvinda says and announces, “If spaces are built in ways which will take our needs into consideration, our lives won’t become abnormal.”

While Aravinda was doing his M.Phil in EFLU, Hyderabad he had an experience at the Bank which he recollects to point at some of the other kind of structural barriers. Those were the days when he had begun to get stipend which he says was the first time he was having his own money. Once when he went to the bank to withdraw money the bank staff, knowing the visual impairment of Aravinda, mixed the notes of hundred, five hundred, fifty and gave it to him. “We can touch the notes, feel the size of the notes, feel some markers on the note and recognize the value of the note,” explains Aravinda. Before continuing to narrate the bank episode he goes on to say, “Post demonetization, the new notes are all of similar size and the markers are not marked properly which has made it difficult for us. It is quite insensitive and disadvantaging. If notes are made more accessible then we will live a full life financially.” Getting back to the bank episode he says, “Since the notes were mixed, it got a bit confusing that day.” As he was struggling to count the amount he heard all the bank staff laughing aloud. On realizing the notes were mixed just to have fun at his cost, Aravinda got furious and gave a piece of his mind to the staff there. He did not end it there but went on to the Dean of Student Welfare and complained about the bank staff. His complaints were taken seriously and the bank staffs were transferred to another branch.

After having recollected the bank episode entirely Aravinda says, “This is one kind of attitudinal barrier.” To explain it further he quotes a recent example when he had gone to shop clothes with his sister visiting India. As soon as he entered the shop with his sister one of their staff offered him a chair and asked him to sit down till his sister would go see the clothes and purchase them. “It irritated me. I refused to take the chair and told them that I too wanted to see the clothes and be a part of the shopping with my sister,” says Aravinda. “When I went back home I was still angry and recollected the entire thing to my mother,” he says. His mother, he tells, pointed to him that probably some disabled persons feel the need to be treated with some extra care. His mother, he says, told him that people think being sympathetic and showing concern is the way and that has been embedded in their subconscious. “Yes, we want to be treated well and with respect. But people seem to think that to be nice or good to the disabled means to be patronizing,” says Aravinda.

Speaking about the attitudinal barriers Aravinda recollected the story of a friend he made during his time in Hyderabad. This friend, he recollects, was given a job in a bank where the manager told him that he wouldn’t be required to do any work and will be given salary for his attendance. “That is so humiliating,” says Aravinda and the anger in his voice cannot be missed. “He was kept in the office like a wallflower. Why don’t people realize that we can also work if given proper facility?” he asks and declares, “Our needs are different but we are equally human.”

“There are such attitudinal barriers which make it difficult for the world to accept us as different but still as human as everyone else,” says Aravinda and points that one of the most crucial and table turning politics of disability studies is in its claim that, “we inhabit a different world.” With this claim, he says, “We have chucked out the word abnormality.” The politics, he says, is in “accepting disability and incorporating it into our lives.” He remembers his grandmother praying to the Almighty for science and technology to improve soon and enable her grandson to gain sight. “I used to tell her why she was praying for my sight while I am fine the way I am. She couldn’t believe I was okay with my blindness.” While saying this Aravinda remembers a stranger once writing on Facebook something like, ‘Let us donate our eyes to the blind and thus end blindness in some years.’ “Such are the ideas of our ‘normal’ society,” remarks Aravinda and exclaims, “Ridiculous,” before asking why instead people can’t accept difference and work towards building an environment that is accessible to all. Coming back to the conversation he had with his grandmother he says, “But eventually she saw my point of view,” and recollects an exchange that defines his position. “My grandmother once asked me if I believe in God to draw strength and I told her I wasn’t weak in any way to be drawing strength from elsewhere.”

“My attitude towards life and my acceptance of my blindness is a gift I have because of my parents and because of my engagement with disability studies,” says Aravinda.

On asked what he meant while saying, “We inhabit a different world,” Aravinda goes to explain in great detail. “We are not ‘abnormal’ sighted people. There is a world of the blind. We have our own aesthetics,” he says and remembers an incident where a friend and he were eating at a fast food joint in Hyderabad. The cook was making some food item and the way he was stirring the food in the frying pan and beating it with spoon sounded like rhythmic drumbeat, he says. When he mentioned about the rhythmic nature of cooking the friend asked him what he was talking about. “She hadn’t heard it because her world is predominantly visual,” says Aravinda and tells how when he goes for evening walks with his parents he enjoys the grass on which he walks, feels its texture under his feet. He says his experience of the world is different and that is his world. He agrees that he might be missing the visual beauty of flowers but the fragrance of the same flowers, he claims, is more accessed by him than from other sighted people. This makes his world different and that he says is a different world altogether. “Sighted people,” he says, “can access this world with practice but usually they are overwhelmed by the visual world.”

Tom Sullivan who authored ‘If you could see what I hear’, is remembered by Aravinda to further elaborate the world of the blind. He remembers Tom Sullivan writing about his sexual adventures and saying how sex in its essence is actually tactile. “Now thanks to the world of advertisements everything including humans have been made into sex objects and visual objects. As a result, sex has become less sensuous and been reduced to visuals,” says Aravinda. Speaking about how the act of intercourse has evolved he points at how when the human world was young, the male would approach the female from behind while having sex. But they turned around so that the eyes can meet. That is when the act of sex advanced from a mere physical act to an emotional act, he says and asks, “Does that mean we blind people who cannot make eye contact cannot participate in sex completely?” and also answers, “It isn’t so because there are other ways of expressing love. There are languages of touch, taste etc.” and seals it with, “So the aesthetics of love and love making is also different in the world of the blind.”

Aravinda who also practices photography occasionally said he takes a linguistic description of things around and then makes a composition of his own and clicks photographs. He mentions some blind people who take auditory cues like the sound of cycle being peddle and clicking photographs. “The composition of my photographs may be different but still it is a visual art,” he says and adds, “Though I may not be able to enjoy what I click still my art will be embodied in the composition of it.”

Aravinda’s doctoral thesis was broadly an inquiry in the aesthetics of the visually impaired. During the defence of his PhD thesis a faculty asked him why he had objections to political ideologies such as Marxism and Feminism. Aravinda defending his position had answered, “Because none take interest in the issues of the disabled.” Remembering this he says, “I had spelt out my issues with these ideologies very briefly but the faculty was sharp enough to pick it up,” and laughs. But then he goes on to narrate two incidents. “This happened in some college in Delhi if I remember correctly. I had read about it in the newspaper,” begins Aravinda with the first incident. “A visually challenged boy complained about the dogs on campus which were troubling for all kinds of disabled students. Even we faced similar problem in EFLU too. So the college where this boy was studying heard him and decide to make the campus dog free. But immediately PETA objected to the decision of the management. When asked about the safety of people with disabilities PETA said the disabled should be helped by other fellow students,” says Aravinda and asks the pertinent question, “Are we expected to live in the mercy of others always by taking their help for everything? I understand that no animals must be tortured or killed. But if you don’t see the requirement of other humans and take your politics to an extreme of this kind, you end up creating an atmosphere where there is more exclusion and not inclusion.”

“Once a political party called for a protest on our campus,” Aravinda began with the second incident. “It was decided to shut the mess for some reason and food was to be served outside the mess. When a friend of mine said that would cause problem for the disabled, an active member of the party which called for a protest said it was a collateral damage and nothing could be done about it,” recollected Dr. Aravinda and said, “That is when I lost faith in all of these political parties on campuses.” He says he can’t remember one election on campus where any of the parties actively spoke about the issues of the disabled on campus during the electoral debate!

After stressing throughout the conversation on the need to accept disability instead of othering the disabled, Aravinda finally touched upon a very crucial matter. He remembered attending a music concert which was attended by a huge number of people with disabilities. “The singer there made this speech which I found problematic. He said all of us are disabled in one or the other way,” recollected Aravinda and exclaimed, “Untrue,” and went on to say, “Everyone has problems. But calling problems of life as disability and equating any problem to disability is to dilute the matter. We need to recognize and accept disability not trivialize by calling everything disability.”

Postscript: This conversation was held at a restaurant. At the end of the conversation when we got off our place and started walking towards the exit door, Aravinda said, “someone noticed me.” On asked how did he know, he said, “Someone just said, “****” while I was walking past them.” Of course I hadn’t heard it. “This is what I don’t like,” said Aravinda after spelling out, “pity is violence” and recalled a conversation he once had with his mother. On being told by his mother that most of the people responded to disability unconsciously in a way the society has conditioned them and he shouldn’t be angered much by it, Aravinda had replied thus: “It’s not just that I don’t want to be treated this way. But my anger is also because such attitudinal barriers cost many people materially, i.e. by denying them educational and employment opportunities.” Hence, says Aravinda, the attitude of the society must be changed.

(Interview conducted in Jan 2019)

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