Flying high: Changing the narrative on disability (IANS Special Series)

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Pune, Feb 25 (IANS) Divyanshu Ganatra was just 19 when glaucoma claimed his eyesight. Being a nature’s boy who revelled in cycling, climbing mountains and trekking, confining himself to the four walls of a room was a situation he was not ready to accept. So he fought against all odds and, today, he is India’s first blind solo paraglider.

He firmly believes that only sports can bring people from the able and disabled worlds together, and dispel misconceptions about the inherent ability of a disabled individual.

Divyanshu’s journey began with his anger and frustration over dealing with a sudden, difficult and dark phase in his life which he was not prepared for. Even his ability to walk alone was questioned by people every single day.

He went to a rehabilitation centre hoping to get equipped for life but couldn’t sustain there for long as the only career suggestions were that of a telephone operator or chalk maker. However, he strongly believed that a disabled person can do much more than what society envisages for him.

“I was not ready for a life based on people’s sympathy. It took some time for me to regain my mental stamina and physical strength. I knew I belonged to the outdoors — and slowly started going for cycling and other activities like climbing,” Divyanshu, now 40, told IANS.

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Climbing led to paragliding, initially with an instructor.

“I can never forget that ecstatic feeling. It is closest to any sort of spiritual experience I ever had. It is extremely difficult to express how it feels to be flying in the sky. No experience is more liberating than that. There are so many barriers on land; but in the sky, I am free like a bird,” he said.

That was in 2004, when he was 26, and there was no looking back. Battling stereotypes, he wanted to stand out in the crowd and beat the notion that a disabled person needs a helping hand.

Finally in 2014, Divyanshu went on to become India’s first blind solo paraglider. This led him to start, in the same year, the Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF), which attempts to bridge the gap between the able and the disabled, in collaboration with Firefox Bikes, a leading brand of imported cycles (mainly of the outdoor kind) in India.

“I am blessed to be born in Pune. From childhood I have been climbing hills or going on treks frequently. And I believe sports is one platform that establishes contact between these two communities,” he added.

Although he is often cited as an inspiration for others, this is something that Divyanshu is not very fond of hearing about himself.

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“There is nothing ‘inspiring’ about what I have done. Paragliding or mountain climbing or any adventure sport can be done by any individual; what’s so special about me doing it? You won’t call an able person doing the same (thing as me) as ‘inspiration’, then why for a disabled,” he asked.

Divyanshu’s struggle has not been against physical constraints but for breaking through societal attitudes.

“Disability should be the last of word used for describing a blind person. What hurts me more is the assumption of the able-bodied that it must be difficult for one to live with ‘disability’. Not with any ill-intention, but it is a misconception the mainstream community carries in its minds, and which has crippled their approach towards the disabled,” he said.

“Persons with disabilities are the largest invisible population in our country. There are around 200 million people with disabilities in India but we are barely noticed,” he added.

Another word that bothers him is “sympathy” — Divyanshu believes what the disabled community looks for is empathy.

“Ask us how our life is, don’t assume! We do not need sympathy, but empathy. The narrative of disability needs to be changed, the language needs to be changed. How disability is portrayed is sad and people need to know that we don’t lead a sad life. We are perceived with pitying eyes — this needs to be stopped,” he maintained.

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Talking about the constitutional rights of the disabled, Divyanshu said that though there were a number of laws, implementation was tardy.

“If the legislation is not practised, then it is of no use. First, the majority of the disabled are unaware of their rights. Second, the rights are not implemented properly for the betterment of the disabled. There is a certain quota for the disabled in both the private and public sector, but the disabled are just made to sit out and no work is assigned to them, which is worse,” he pointed out.

However, Divyanshu has always been an optimist and strongly believes change will come.

“There is a change in people’s attitude towards the disabled. When the change is much more meaningful and once we have more mainstream people opening up their educational institutes, work places and public spaces for us, we will see a huge change,” he said.

(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Somrita Ghosh can be contacted at [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]> )

–IANS

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