A few weeks ago, I participated in an online panel discussion about children with disabilities and the need for inclusion in education. The panelists discussed the common challenges that children with disabilities and their caregivers faced every single day.
As a parent of a neurodiverse child, I found myself repeatedly talking instead about my child and her unique abilities. Neurodiversity, I argued, can show us new perspectives, shape our future and challenge outdated ideas. After all, we live in a time when diversity and inclusion are buzzwords in large companies. Schools quote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ad nauseam, but very few of them value inclusion, which is part of the sustainable development goal on education.
The Invisible Majority: India’s Abled Disabled, a new book co-authored by CK Meena and VR Ferose, validated my beliefs in every way. CK Meena is a journalist, author and founding member of the Asian College of Journalism. VR Ferose is a Senior Vice President at SAP SE and the Head of SAP Academy for Engineering.
Released on December 3, the International Day of the Persons with Disabilities, The Invisible Majority is an incisive and in-depth look at disability in India. It is a fascinating read even if you are not a person with disabilities or a caregiver because it explores possibilities for our lives that we never knew existed.
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The book gives us 64 stories about persons with disabilities (PwDs) from Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, people who overcame tremendous challenges to lead fulfilling and remarkable lives. These stories also extend to the caregivers, activists, teachers, entrepreneurs, organisations, schools, designers, doctors, and architects who took on the system in different ways. The book also arms us with vital information about disability rights in India.
For me, it is the stories about the persons with disabilities and their caregivers that lie at the heart of the book. We learn about Shravya Kanithi from Hyderabad, the first blind student to finish a postgraduate diploma from the Indian School of Business. Osteogenesis Imperfecta or brittle bone disease does not stop Ummul Kher from acing the prestigious IAS exam and becoming an assistant commissioner in the Indian Revenue Service. We read about Smrithy Rajesh, a homemaker whose child’s diagnosis changed her life and inadvertently launched her career in education. Priyanka Malhotra’s son Nipun was born with arthrogryposis and she was keen for him to be part of a mainstream school. His school did not have an elevator, so Priyanka carried her son to his classroom everyday and positioned wheelchairs on the ground and first floors. Years later, Nipun would join the Delhi School of Economics and create the Nipman Foundation-Microsoft Equal Opportunity Awards in 2014 to recognise companies that promote employment of PwDs.
One of my favorite parts in the book is when the authors talk about the disability advantage, or ‘coolability.’ This is a word coined by Chally Grundwag, David Nordfors and Nurit Yirmiya. Simply put, coolability is the idea of how disability can come with other enhanced abilities. This could be a new talent market in itself, presenting a raft of jobs and projects as alternatives to those that will be oversubscribed in the years to come.
The authors give us an example of a well-known company that works on legal processing and transcription work. One employee who was blind achieved 40% more productivity than her coworkers. In this case, a person with blindness discovered that her coolability was her enhanced hearing ability. As an experiment, the company got its employees to wear blindfolds and the productivity increased by 25%.
This reminded me of an article I read in The New York Times about how audiobooks are products of technology developed by and for people with disabilities, a technology that has permeated the mainstream to help us all. This shift in perspective is an important one, an interconnected change that shows us how inclusion can benefit everyone.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru. She is the founder of Education Revolution and a Senior Advisor to Linguaphile, a UK-based organisation that provides end-to-end special education services to children.