I don’t have any special passion for blindness or disabled people. Just like I don’t have a passion for someone who may be tall or short or dark or having a lisp. I define disability as a prejudice in one’s mind that makes one compare anything to a “normal” yardstick, when there can be no one interpretation to what is “normal”. When people from different backgrounds and ethnicity and gender don’t interact or have a healthy exchange of views, it results in a certain close-mindedness and intolerance that is rampant in many parts of India. The lack of exchange results in people being trapped in their prejudices, their clichés. Keeping the disabled out of a healthy exchange is no different. I firmly believe that we can change people’s mindsets and their thinking by simply ensuring an encounter between diverse individuals. And if it’s in a setting that enables one to go beyond what’s obvious and understand the strengths that the “other” has, it could bring about a paradigm shift. This is what I personally experienced when I had my first brush with the concept of Dialogue in the Dark 5 years ago, and my engagement with hundreds of business leaders, academics, social workers and students alike through Dialogue in the Dark over the last few years has made me realize just how powerful an “encounter” can be.
Many believe that a key to bring people with disabilities in the mainstream is to provide them vocational education and jobs. Of course its important and economic independence can really do wonders to bring a marginalized community to have a place in the sun. But its more important to bring a mindset change among those considered without disability. Its important to give everyone a chance to step into another’s shoes, and of course to understand their own limits, that will help them become open towards the other. Once we become more open toward anyone defined as the “other,” be it one practicing another faith, look different or perhaps with some physical disability, we will be a different society. Everyone would then realize their own vulnerabilities, understand that everyone has limits of some form or the other. And that the human spirit also has the unique ability to overcome those limits.
My mantra in the social space in the last few years, both as a consultant and an entrepreneur, is to question status quo- be it to see how for-profit commercial business can be agents of large scale change, or work with teams where geography is incidental or to challenge existing mores of scale and sustainability. My personal encounter with a diverse set of individuals in an intense Dialogue in the Dark workshop and subsequently with a visionary like Andreas Heinecke helped me shape my thinking, elevating the emotional experience I had with my blind trainers in a dark setting on a cognitive level. I learnt about myself, my physical and mental limits, and a completely new understanding of what it means to be without sight. I discovered that I could cope with the dark and my other senses took over. My encounter with people like Sabriye Tenberken of Kanthari, a unique social entrepreneurship school that helps marginalized youth to become agents of change reaffirmed the mindset change I had. The fact that Sabriye is blind or from a different country didn’t deter her from setting up a school for the blind in a harsh geography like Tibet or set up the school for entrepreneurship and her home in Kerala in India.
Sabriye is not a lone ranger. Many changemakers like her are making a huge difference to people that they work with and interact with. There is one thing common to all the stories we heard. It was about people with a passion and the courage to create an environment where people can have an open exchange. Each of these changemakers have translated the most important life skills including resilience, adaptability, empathy, humbleness, gratefulness, trust, compassion, collaboration, caring and sharing into action.
The more we all embrace this openness and understand the power of encounter, we will realize that “disability” is just a state of mind! And we all would grapple with it at some point or the other!
So maybe every year on Dec 3, we would learn to celebrate World “DIVERSITY” day instead of World Disability Day!