There are easy ways to look at the recent incident at Ranchi Airport when a young traveler was denied permission to board a flight because he is disabled. The easy way paints all the players in black and white: The airline ground staff who refused to let the boy fly and the corporate honchos who stood behind him are sinister and evil; his family are saints.
Reality, however, is more complicated. The reality is that most people are like the airline official who refused to allow the disabled child to fly. They see disability as abnormal and frightening, even dangerous. They have had no frame of reference for the child’s distress.
This is almost always due to ignorance. Ignorance is a natural state of mind resulting from a lack of information and experience. We are all ignorant about things that others feel we should know.
What we need is more awareness. For that, it’s best to begin with children. Adults can learn, but face it: it’s a lot more difficult. Habits die hard; habits of thought die hardest. I try to imagine what people would be like if they had gone to an inclusive school. And by inclusion, I mean the real thing – not a school with a “learning centre” where the disabled kids spend most of their day, meeting the typical kids only in sports, music and art class.
In a truly inclusive school, our airline staffer would have grown up with a whole range of kids with different learning styles and mobility needs and teachers who accommodated them naturally and without fuss. Students with sensory issues would have been provided with noise-cancelling headphones to help them cope; blind children would have had a scribe and/or a Braille typewriter; kids with Cerebral Palsy would have had special furniture; kids who had trouble understanding would be taught a simpler version of what the rest of the class was doing. You can recognize an inclusive environment by its resourcefulness, imagination and creativity. When each individual is truly accepted, the question is never “Do you belong here?” but always “How can we make this work?”
So the airline representatives weren’t evil, and neither can we claim that the parents were saints. CCTV footage of them trying to “calm” their child shows the mother losing her temper and slapping the boy repeatedly. But consider her desperation. She’d just been told she would not be allowed to fly unless her child could behave “normally.” Imagine if, instead, she’d felt supported there at the boarding gate. Children are like barometers, picking up on their parents’ moods with unfailing precision. If mom was anxious, the child would have felt unsafe too. If mom knew everything was going to be fine, the child would have calmed down.
As long as the disability is all we can see, such incidents will continue. The social model of disability shifts the focus from the disabled person (You are the problem. You need to be fixed) to the environment (How can we change this situation or these attitudes so that we can all live happily in this world?). That same shift in focus works for those who just don’t get it yet, too. We don’t condemn them for not understanding, not being aware. We meet them where they are and keep opening windows, opening doors, showing people there’s a better way.
And we are getting better. For me, the one golden thread running through this sad story is the fact that ordinary people in the Ranchi airport stopped what they were doing to reach out to the family, to stand up for a child’s rights. A team of doctors, a retired government official, a teacher, a social entrepreneur – all public-spirited citizens who saw injustice and refused to walk on by.
So we keep on sowing the seeds of awareness and extending the boundaries of that inclusive garden, where there are flowers in every colour of the rainbow and nothing is black or white.
Jo Chopra is the executive director of Latika Roy Foundation, and works on disability rights, services and awareness.