Being made to feel different can be devastating. Most of us have experienced it at some point in life, and it’s awful even as an adult, but for children it’s confusing as well as hurtful, and it can have a lifelong impact.
Anuradha was only one year old when she fell into a fire, badly burning her hands and face. For a few years she was unaware of having any disability – toddlers tend to just get on with things. But when she started school she noticed people would stare at her and it affected her confidence. “I felt ugly,” she says. “When people asked what happened I didn’t know what to say.”
A few decades passed and Anuradha still lacked confidence. She’d left her husband, and was supporting her two children by working as a teacher. But she was barely getting by.
Anuradha was under a lot of pressure. She cried after each day at work and felt trapped. She didn’t think she had any other options for earning an income.
Photo © Graeme Robertson
The ad that changed everything
One day, Anuradha saw an ad in a local newspaper about a meeting of the local disabled people’s organisation (DPO). She was curious to find out more. When she attended, she met “brothers and sisters, people like me,” and realised that, like them, she could do things for herself: “I got to know I could get a pension and travel pass.”
From these small steps Anuradha’s confidence grew. These days it’s impossible to see the unhappy person she used to be in the confident, determined and strong woman who now leads Bikaner district’s DPO, and spends her days helping others to learn about their rights and the services they’re entitled to.
I thought, ‘If he can smile, why can’t I?'
Before starting her job as leader of the DPO, Anuradha attended a camp organised by the government. She found this challenging as she met people with severe disabilities, “Some not able to move, just breathing,” and she felt very bad and cried. She explains that she met a person with no arms or legs and felt sympathy, but as she talked to him there was a smile on his face and that brought confidence to her.
“I thought, ‘If he can smile, why can’t I?’ After that I decided not to feel sorry about my disability. He can write, wash clothes, cook – if he can why can’t I? I have to be confident.” After five days working with the team at the camp, Anuradha decided this was what she wanted to do.
Anuradha the advocate
Anuradha has come an enormously long way from the days when she didn’t know how to fill in a form. Now, when people need a loan she explains the procedure and helps with the forms. She advises others on the various government schemes and facilities. She’s vocal about the rights of people with disabilities and has already had a big impact in her community.
“There is a post office nearby where people get pensions, but there were no chairs or ramp,” she says. “It was improperly constructed and someone fell down. So I approached officials with an application and the next construction it was taken up. This benefited not just people with disabilities, but old people and widows who use the services.”
Photo © Sightsavers
Anuradha is a strong supporter of personal responsibility. Her message to other people with disabilities? “Don’t think ourselves disabled – be confident in heart. We have to prove to ourselves that we can do better. There are many people with disabilities who can contribute to society, like we are standing on our own feet and doing things for ourselves.”
As well as encouraging others with disabilities to stand up for themselves, Anuradha is also outspoken about the accountability of politicians. “The government needs to take action to sensitise officials about disabled people’s rights, so when we approach them they won’t send us away,” she says. “Every government should have guidelines for people with disabilities so they are aware of rights and facilities and won’t have to run from pillar to post to access them.”
Photo © Sightsavers
Anuradha’s happy that organisations like Sightsavers support the DPO, but adds: “I see a day when we can fight for our rights ourselves.” She wants her group to become a role model for DPOs in other districts.
The little girl who felt ugly and shy because of her disability is now a strong community leader and role model. “Now I’m very confident and take care of my family,” she says. “I like the work from the bottom of my heart as I feel happy when people with disabilities can do things for themselves.”