Perceptions can change if you open up your mind
When we refer to someone as “disabled” what are we really doing? Are we sayng that that person is less than us in some way? Are we feeling sorry for him/her? Patting ourselves on the back for our compassion and sense of humanity if we take the time to hang out with someone whom we have labeled as disabled?
How do we define a disability? Isn’t it merely the absence of an ability? Aren’t all of us then disabled in one way or another? For instance, if I were living in Japan and was unable to speak Japanese, would I not be disabled from communicating effectively with the majority of the people living there? What if I found myself in the midst of a group of financial experts who were discussing some complicated financial issue that went over my head, wouldn’t I be disabled from understanding the context of that discussion?
Recently I met a young woman by the name of Lozina in Rawalpindi. She is confined to a wheelchair and, for her, pain and discomfort are synonymous with living. But chatting with her was an amazing experience. She has done her Masters in Computer Science and is at the moment working on a PhD. She has been physically challenged since she was born. Her parents decided at the outset that her condition would not be allowed to restrict her from doing anything that she wanted to do in life. I met the parents too and never have I met a couple who are as proud of their daughter, of the person she is and of her achievements. It was wonderful to see. The next step she is taking is to start on her PhD program and I must commend Dr. Arshad Ali and his team at NUST for encouraging her and providing her with whatever direction she needs to pursue this program. Vickram Crishna and his partner Dr. Arun Mehta have been asked to be her supervisors alongwith two NUST professors.
Meeting with Lozina reminded me of a person I met in Ahmedabad years ago. I had been invited to be a panelist at a conference there. Walking into the workshop area, I saw a gentleman sitting and working on his laptop, headset on, talking on his mobile while he was typing away – a really hi-tech dude. He was the moderator of the session – Dr. Dipender Manocha. A terrific guy, great sense of humour, very knowledgeable about a diverse number of subjects. I sat and chatted with him for about half an hour before I realized that he could not see. Dipender has since been to Pakistan several times. We (P@SHA and Rotary) have organized seminars for him and he has assisted six institutes to form the DAISY for Pakistan platform in Pakistan. These institutes have been given equipment and training and have now started converting books into DAISY format thus making books much more accessible to those with visual challenges. The Holy Quran and some books from the school curriculum have already been converted.
I remember something that Dipender told me when we first met. He said those who can see will never know what it’s like to always have everything read to you, to never be able to ‘read’ and send email, to pick up any book one wants to and ‘read’ it. He said when he first discovered technology, it empowered him to be who he was, to communicate and share what he knew and to simply have the pleasure of ‘reading’ a book at his own pace.
It is experiences like these that make me wonder why we think of people like Lozina and Dipender as ‘disabled’ and why we do not spend more time developing technology to empower the broader segments of society – or as my friends Vickram and Arun often say, why do we not work with people with various challenges so that they can develop the technology they need to make life better for themselves? That was what led to the workshop on Intelligent Choices. More about that later.
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