The 15 Percent
When I was expecting my children, I saw pregnant women everywhere. It felt like an epidemic—where had they all been hiding till now?
Later, while breastfeeding, I would spot other women in parks and malls and church services. Discreet or not, it was always easy. I knew what they were doing. There is this curve of the arm; there is that tilt of the head.
When my parents and my in-laws grew old and frail and every excursion with them became an exercise in vigilance, caution and patience, everywhere I looked, I saw other middle-aged people hovering alertly, shepherding their elders.
So, I’m not surprised that I see people with disability everywhere. When I was pregnant, that baby blossoming inside me filled my mind so completely, it was natural that I would notice others in the same amazing situation. When I was nursing – my God, what a miracle! – could I fail to see other women doing the same astonishing thing? And when the tables turned and I, the daughter, became the parent, was it possible that I would not notice others making the same shocking transition?
We see what is meaningful to us. We notice what our own lives call to our attention. Disability is a central force in my life. Obviously I will notice the kid with Down Syndrome, the adult with the autistic traits, the teenager who’s taking a bit longer than usual to get it.
But even though I know this, even though I understand how football players are not particularly aware of violinists, daredevil teens don’t give a passing glance to law-abiding grown-ups, and five-year-olds see only other five-year-olds, it still shocks me when people are surprised by disability statistics.
“Really?” they say incredulously, when I tell them the World Health Organization says 15 percent of India’s population has special needs. “Where are they? I never see them.”
At one level, this is true. Certainly we don’t see the full 15 percent, and there are reasons. Streets in India are rough and bumpy and full of potholes—a nightmare for a blind person or anyone who uses a wheelchair or walker; most buildings don’t have ramps or lifts; bathrooms are inaccessible; doorways aren’t wide enough.
And then there’s all that staring. Most people just can’t understand that the kid with autism who flaps his hands a lot needs to do that to be calm; or that the one with hydrocephalus, whose head is much bigger than a typical child’s, was born that way and isn’t weird or dangerous because of it; or that the adult with Down Syndrome who still sees life the way a child of seven does has a lot to teach us about amazement, and joy, and being alive to the wonders of the world.
So, parents learn the hard way not to bring out their disabled kids very often. One of the most common things I hear as a professional working in disability is how lonely it is. Kids with disability have trouble making friends. Parents feel isolated. Siblings feel disloyal when they go out and have fun.
And yet, if you stay alert, if you really pay attention, you will still see them all the time. Literally—all the time. Just last night, in fact, I had exited the train and was walking down the platform behind a family of four. The father had the big bags and one little girl in tow. The mother had a small bag because she had charge of the other child who looked like a twin and who had the distinctive Cerebral Palsy gait. Just a little touch of it, the left side, her hand curved in that special way of kids with Cerebral Palsy.
One of ours! I said to myself, in that now familiar fellow-feeling I get when I see someone who is struggling. One of ours.
And there’s another! Imagine this guy – spotted on the same railway platform in Old Delhi train station – a coolie with one arm. At first I thought I was seeing things; how could a one-armed man choose being a coolie as a career? But there he was, no mistake. That red kurta had one empty sleeve, and the man wearing it had a partner, a guy who helped him hoist the bag onto his head. I didn’t see the end of the transaction, but I’ll bet there was someone else at the destination point who helped him lower it, too. (Disability can have that effect on us, too. It makes us notice other people more and anticipate what they might need.)
I see them everywhere. They are navigating their adapted cars proudly, darting through traffic; they are walking bravely down the side of the Delhi-Dehradun highway, using a stick as a pole vault. They are sitting in restaurants and in waiting rooms; they are standing in line on three-wheelers at the petrol pump.
There’s that child, the one you saw, perhaps, out of the corner of your eye on the way to work this morning. He’s unsteady, unsure, about to fall again, but oh! He is still so determined. They are everywhere. My heart goes out to them because they are ours, but even more so because they are Ours: part of the human family—struggling, searching, achieving, moving forward, gazing up.
Bring disability into your life. Notice them. Please, notice them.