Today, December 3, is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. There are a billion people with disabilities around the world. I recently had the privilege of attending the India Inclusion Summit, an event focused on making India inclusive for people with disabilities. Attending the summit was a very profound experience. The people I met were awe-inspiring, and I was left humbled. Many individuals who have overcome physical difficulties to achieve something truly phenomenal shared their extraordinary life stories.
And they inspired me to share my own story of living with a disability.
When you meet me, you would never know that I have a disability, but I do. When I was four my mother took me to an eye doctor because of how I interacted with my environment. A quick eye exam revealed that one of my eyes was useless, and was called a “lazy” eye. Ten years of treatment followed, mostly unsuccessful and with side effects – some of which I still live with today. During summer vacations, as children my age spent hours playing outdoors, I was confined to home, with a patch over my good eye. Doctors believed that my lazy eye could become active if it was “forced to” work – so they tried to make it work by patching my good eye. It didn’t work as they had hoped.
When you meet me, you would never know that I have a disability, but I do.
My disability took some career options off the table for me. It also required much more effort for routine activities such as reading and working on a computer. Going through a demanding engineering course became much more difficult than it already was. Today, many routine tasks still require extra effort, but I am grateful that I can still see the world in its full glory with one good eye. I consider my limitation to be nothing compared to the challenges that the heroes I met at the summit have overcome.
I listened with rapt attention as wheelchair-bound Professor Zoyeb Zia shared his fight against ataxia since the age of 15. His journey of how he went on to complete his Bachelors, Masters and M. Phil to become a professor in Zoology is remarkable. His next milestone is to complete his Ph. D in Bioinformatics or Genomics. His story has one key message: “determination has no disability”.
Swarnalatha, a mother of two, also appeared on stage in a wheelchair. She began strumming an instrument, sang beautifully in two languages, and left the audience mesmerized. She shared how MS (Multiple sclerosis) has confined her to a wheelchair. This has not sopped her from winning multiple beauty pageants, successfully pursuing music, founding an NGO, and making a tremendous difference in the lives of people who are challenged with a physical disability. With the help of her husband she balances her work and family life, and both her children are national level sportspersons. “Can’t” is a word totally absent from her vocabulary. She says, “I am not just special, I am limited edition”.
Jerry White lost his foot when he accidentally stepped on a land mine while traveling in Israel. His disability inspired him to launch a global campaign against the military litter of land mines. His cause was taken up by the late princess Diana, who extended her support. Over the years, Jerry’s campaign has been successful in many ways. For his work in this field, he was honored as a co-recipient of the Nobel peace prize.
Vaibhav Kothari was born in a small town in Rajasthan with no hearing ability. He went on to earn his Engineering and MBA degrees in the United States before returning to India and running a successful business venture. I was overcome with emotion as I watched him stand up proudly on stage and share his story in American Sign Language – interpreted live for the audience by an American interpreter.
This is just a small sampling of the amazing people and their inspiring stories I heard at the summit. As I sat there listening I realized that sometimes inspiration is closer than we think. My fellow colleague at Symantec, Sandeep Kanabar – who joined me at the summit – is no less inspiring. At the young age of 15, Sandeep lost his hearing. Today, Sandeep is fighting cyber crime – standing shoulder to shoulder with his colleagues at Symantec. Anyone who has met Sandeep will agree that every encounter with him is an absolute pleasure. An ever-smiling face, a vibrant personality, he embodies eternal optimism. His enthusiasm immediately elevates every gathering he is a part of. I feel truly blessed to be working with Sandeep – and wish him every success.
The billion people with disabilities do not need pity. All they need is a level playing field so they have the opportunity to make their mark.
As Jerry White said at the summit, “everyone has a missing piece” – I have mine and you have yours. The missing piece may not be very evident, but it’s there and we can only complete ourselves in the true sense by connecting with others – by truly opening our minds and hearts to possibilities. The billion people with disabilities do not need pity. All they need is a level playing field so they have the opportunity to make their mark. And we know they can––I witnessed this first hand at the summit. I witnessed mind and spirit prevailing over the body. I met people who have broken all barriers put forth by their physical limitations. We owe it to them and others like them to be open.
I call upon us all to open our mind to possibilities, to open our mind to provide opportunity, to open our mind to explore inclusion to its fullest, to open our mind to spirited individuals who have overcome physical challenges. It is only fitting that they receive an opportunity to stake a claim to greatness in our war against cyber crime. In our relentless pursuit of making the world a safer place, we stand only to benefit by making them our allies.
In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Noel Kriedler shares her story of living with a disability, and offers some insight on how to be a better ally for people with disabilities in the workplace.
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