Challenging Disability at Every Step
By Agnes D’Souza
I live in central Kolkata on CIT Road on the first floor of a four- storied building. There is no lift in the building and the stairs are narrow and quite steep. As a child I used to have tremendous difficulty in climbing the stairs. I was ten when I decided that I would control my mobility and not let it control me. I began by trying out the steps in Loreto, Sealdah. I used to be carried up but one fine day I decided to climb the stairs to my class-room. I told my friend I want to climb the stairs. She was a bit apprehensive, but I told her with a lot of bravado that I could. So I climbed one step at a time and it took me nearly half an hour to climb the entire flight of stairs. Since then I have never looked back.
My first school experience was traumatic. I was admitted into Our Lady Queen of the Missions School at the age of six. However, at that time, I was unable to control my bodily functions too well and hence was made to sit outside the classroom on a chair placed near the door. It was a humiliating experience for me. I was not allowed to play with the other children. The then Principal told my mother to take me out of the school as I was ‘different’ and there was no way the school could integrate me. My mother, determined to send me to a ‘mainstream’ school, went to Loreto, Sealdah where I was accepted gladly. Though the school did not have any disabled friendly infrastructure or special teachers, I studied with so-called normal children and was not made to feel different. The inclusive environment that was nurtured there helped me build my self-confidence and self-esteem.
I had a very normal childhood. My parents and extended family did not differentiate between my siblings and myself. This taught me the valuable lesson of never seeing myself as differently abled. Throughout my academic life, I was able to compete as an equal with my fellow students. This attitude helped me complete my graduation at Lady Brabourne College and then move to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi where I completed my masters. I went to JNU for two reasons—to get a Masters degree and to prove to my parents and to myself that I could survive alone. My parents travelled with me to JNU and got me settled in. Initially it was difficult but I soon fell into the routine of things. My confidence and self-belief are the biggest assets I carry with me wherever I go.
My first job was at Child In Need Institute (CINI), Pailan, an assignment to document their nutritional programmes in different parts of the city and in the districts of West Bengal.The journey from home to the CINI office in Pailan was a difficult one as it involved changing buses three times each way morning and evening. But I learnt to manage and got used to travelling alone. When we travelled to the field area, the whole team would go together. I could manage most things by myself. Once when we were travelling through Jhargram, our jeep met with an accident and we all fell into the field. That day I learnt to sit on the front bar of a bicycle. It was a 16 kilometre journey and I clung on for dear life till we reached the office.
When I got my present job as a teacher in Loreto Convent, Entally, Kolkata, I was considered for my capabilities. Being a differently abled teacher is very different. As a teacher, when you are in class, you have to be extremely mobile and I am not that mobile. So I had to develop my own technique. The students are now used to my method of working, but I had to adjust to many things and it took me quite a while. I can always count on the students to gladly carry my things to class and the copies back to the staff room. While teaching the main problem I face is of mobility, from the teacher’s desk to the blackboard to the students’ desks. But I manage it well now. Getting the students to accept me as a figure of authority was no problem. They are openly curious about my condition and I am frank with them. I tell them that I worked very hard to get where I am now and that I hope they will work hard also. Children are sensitive and if they are taught early in life, they become very accepting.
[Agnes D’Souza, who has a locomotor disability and walks with the help of callipers and crutches, teaches in the middle and senior school at Loreto Convent Entally in Kolkata.]