A Christmas Wish

By Shyama Parui

You walk into a store, heads turn and for a few seconds you have everybody's attention; but that is the last thing you want because those seconds feel like minutes. It is as embarrassing as walking into a public restroom of the opposite sex. Yet, there are individuals who have to face such stares on an everyday basis due to a characteristic that makes them “different."

Take age for example. We are all slowly aging regardless of the number of candles on our birthday cake. Yet, aging is often harder than it needs to be. This sad realization came to me when I spent time in India this past summer. My mother, who is now an octogenarian, is not as strong as she once was. Walking is not as easy as it used to be, balance is a challenge, and her faith in herself is dwindling. She needed assistance. I was pleasantly surprised that the Society (similar to the HOA in the US) provided a wheelchair to residents of her building, who needed it on occasion.

When I set out to take my mother to the car using the wheelchair, we experienced several bumps along the way. From raised thresholds, to uneven transitions from the floor to elevator, to the lack of ramps, having a wheelchair only solves part of the problem. Where I found ramps, such as a hotel or a different residential building, it was too narrow and steep to safely manage a wheelchair up or down. Mobility is merely one issue. An elderly person's need for peace and quiet is forgotten every time a festival is celebrated in Mumbai. From dawn to dusk, loudspeakers blast off music. Not to mention the noise from traffic that is unavoidable.

The incessant honking on the other hand is completely avoidable. Shouldn't festivals be a pleasant experience for all? None of us can escape aging. We can choose to embrace it or deny the possibility that our feet won't be able to bear much weight and our arms will be weaker. What is our normal today may not be normal tomorrow. So, creating an environment that helps the geriatric population will ultimately benefit the young.

In general, I feel like there is an improvement of accepting children with challenges in the field of learning or academic performance. I distinctly remember one of my classmates in elementary school, who stood out as different, odd and unfortunately the target of ridicule. As a six or seven-year old bystander, I was completely ignorant about what to do. Having a sibling with special needs had made me empathetic from a young age with others, particularly with the pain a person with developmental challenges experienced and the consequences that affected their family. It was also a time when there was less awareness about special education. School was the same for everyone and if you couldn't cope, too bad.

There are educators who are of the belief that learning disability is merely a teaching disability. Most people though are unaware or just indifferent to the perspective of the ones perceived as “less than normal." In the Hindi movie, Hichki, Rani Mukherjee played the protagonist with Tourette Syndrome, and while it wasn't stellar cinema, I genuinely applaud the attempt to throw some light at her situation and voice her thoughts. Dear Zindagi, another refreshingly different film with popular actors portrayed the therapist – client relationship fairly well. And that is coming from a former counselor herself.

When I was practicing as a counselor, people had a hard time fathoming what I did. Worse, they had all kinds of misconceptions about why people chose to see a therapist. Movies do have some power to influence social change, after all charisma has won actors votes and political positions. Even if it cannot change the world, I hope cinema exerts a gentle nudge in the right direction.

One area that the United States has worked hard at is attempting to even the playing field, so to speak. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was introduced to “ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA guarantees this for people with disabilities in all aspects of everyday life — from employment opportunities, to being able to purchase goods and services, to participating in state and local governments' programs and services." (Source: www.dol.gov). One outcome of this is building codes that outline accommodations for wheelchair access.

Even the county inspector, who came to assess our sunroom, seemed satisfied with everything but turned up his nose at the steps outside. He asked us to install handrails so that an elderly or disabled person can get support. If this had been a few years back, I would have rolled my eyes and thought that he was being overly concerned, but now I know that if my mother visits, she will not only appreciate but will need those handrails.

Placing your own needs ahead of others is definitely acceptable and often a requirement for mental health. For instance, parents of a newborn have to set aside time to eat and rest even though the infant's needs take priority. I like to think of it this way, we are unique in our own way and sometimes because of it we may feel left out or forgotten or ignored. Ever been to a party where there was no vegetarian food or where everyone spoke in their native tongue and you were standing there clueless? Wouldn't you have liked your hostess to have thought about it? As a polite guest you may not complain but you would probably decline their next invitation. I sincerely believe that it pays to be thoughtful and step into someone else's shoes.

My Christmas Wish for this year is to hope for a worldwide culture that is not about staring but about being supportive. It is a world in which people are not only borrowing music and fashion trends from each other but are also adopting some of the best practices for accommodating dis... no, different abilities.

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Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com