The Braille Monitor                                                                                         June, 2002

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Madam Is from America:

Life Lessons from Village India

by Mariyam Cementwala

Mariyam Cememtwala
Mariyam Cementwala

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2001 issue of the NFBC Journal, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of California. Mariyam Cementwala was an NFB Scholarship winner in 1997. This spring she will earn a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. She has recently been awarded one of twelve George Mitchell Scholarships for the 2002‑2003 academic year. This one-year scholarship is considered the Irish equivalent of the Rhodes Fellowship and sponsors its recipients to study at the graduate level for one year at a university in Ireland or Northern Ireland. Mariyam will pursue an LLM in Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland in Galway. She has already worked with the World Bank's Thematic Group on Disability and Development and has researched international disability law and its implementation in India, working at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and at the governmental and grassroots level in India.

Mariyam often writes thoughtfully for the Braille Monitor about her experience as a competent blind woman returning to India. Here is her most recent report:

What was I going to learn about Federation philosophy from the Indian governmental bureaucrat or Delhi school principal or walking in cold mud? What was an interview with a girl disabled by polio in the slums going to teach me about myself? The traveler does not always know about the wonderful life lessons to be gained the world over, but that was perhaps the deeper purpose of my trip.

I was researching the influence of international disability law on India's domestic education policies and ground-level practices. I was expecting to meet and interview all types of people--governmental officials, United Nations agency staff, teachers, principals, students--but no matter what my expectations, nothing prepared me for the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that people held for me or for other blind people.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking illustration of people's attitudes about me as a blind researcher was displayed when I went to interview a fourteen-year-old girl who lived in a slum area outside of New Delhi. Sholay, like most children her age, had wanted to go to school but had been denied admission to the local government public school because of her disability. As a toddler she had contracted polio and was left disabled as a result. She wore special wooden shoes and walked on crutches, but not without great difficulty, especially in the rains. I wanted to get the full scoop on her life, her struggle for an education, and her thoughts on her volunteer lawyer's victory in court. It would be an exciting interview, no doubt. I picked up the social worker who had discovered Sholay at our designated meeting point and gave directions to my driver to proceed to where Sholay lived.

Despite the torrential rain pouring down and flooding parts of the badly constructed roads, we arrived in an area of slums where each home was a crudely constructed hut about the size of the bathroom areas in our rooms at the hotel. Sholay's hut was made of a few steel rods and some tarp. In this dwelling she, her parents, two siblings, and two goats cozily lived.

Because of the monsoon rains, the area outside the hut was almost completely flooded. When we arrived, we parked the car, and I naturally opened the car door and stepped out. But I heard gasps and yells from inside the car: "No!" shouted my grandmother, who had accompanied me to Delhi on her vacation because she refused to have me travel alone by train.

"No, no," said the social worker, "You don't have to get out in the rain if you don't want to."

"Yes, that's right," my grandmother chimed in, "Sholay can come to you."

"What?" I exclaimed, stunned by the suggestion of having a girl who could hardly walk with crutches in the rain come to me so that I, who wanted the information, could interview her.

"Yes, yes," said the social worker and my grandmother in unison. "She can come. Her parents or someone can bring her, or she'll use her crutches. No need for you to get out in the floods and rain. You might slip and fall, and it is very muddy, and you will ruin your nice clothes."

For a moment I was too aghast to react. They were motioning to Sholay's father to bring her to meet the blind foreign visitor.

Then I opened the car door, jumped out, and retorted, "Do you know what you are saying? You want a poor girl who can't walk to go out in the rain so that I can interview her! I need to go to her; she doesn't need to come to me."

As I made my way to Sholay's hut, long white cane in hand guiding me through the slippery slums, her parents rushed out, hollering in Hindi, "Be careful, Madam. Why did you take the trouble? You could have called us."

The hut was dim, muddy, muggy, claustrophobic. The small, dark, frail girl was sitting on a makeshift bed made of rebar iron rods and the same tarp material. There was no mattress. A goat wandered up to me, and her father swiftly moved it out of the way. I conducted the entire interview in Hindi, hearing about her struggles with the local schools, her parents' illiteracy, her lawyer's benevolence. And I felt the injustice of life. Here was a girl whose parents brought in a monthly income of $5, who lived in a disease-infested slum where running water is a luxury, who could not walk or run or dance, who was fighting for and winning her right to an education--and people considered me more disabled and thus more brave than she. People thought my blindness was so disabling that I should not have to get out of the car to interview this young lady.

I felt helpless because I knew that no matter what I did, no matter how much education I received, no matter how much better things were for me, I could do nothing to convince these people otherwise. My blindness overshadowed all of it. I felt truly helpless at my inability to make them understand the truth I lived.

Encountering this custodial attitude was both shocking and disheartening. But this custodial attitude prevails in every corner of the world: Delhi or Detroit, Calcutta or California.

The question becomes how to deal with it. My answer in this case was to do what needed to be done civilly: disobey the commands of my grandmother, the social worker, even Sholay's parents. Walking in flooded slum areas without slipping is no great deed, but it is precisely little things like this that subtly impart big philosophy, changing the perspectives and perceptions of sighted people about the blind in India, America, and around the world.

Yes, I was angry and sad at the way I was often treated by people, even my family members, who saw me as an upstart, impudent, blind brat for speaking out at times in frustration at their disrespect and lack of understanding. But I tried to practice one of the great lessons of the Federation: to convert my sadness and frustration into passion and then action.

Whether we accept the responsibility or not, we in the National Federation of the Blind have a responsibility to impart the truth about blindness in our deeds. And I felt the burden of this responsibility too much, too often. I felt at times as if I were under a microscope; people were watching me. They gave dirty looks to my reader because she did not grab my hand or coddle me along. I might note that, if she had dared to do so, she would have been fired sooner than she was.

But there were times when I did not require a reader to accompany me on interviews, and people continued to stare as I walked alone into a building where I had never been, waiting for me to trip or bump into something. When my cane hit some pole or chair or obstacle in the way (as canes naturally do), they gasped and yelped, rushing to my side to assist me before some calamity occurred. I felt choked by my own philosophy, needing to be independent around my family and do everything just right in front of the interviewees because any mistake or flaw would be associated automatically with my blindness.

If I didn't remember how to get from Linking Road to Hill Road, it could not possibly be because I hadn't lived in Bombay for over fifteen years. To my family it was a consequence of my blindness. If I didn't find the office of the Commissioner of Disability Welfare, it was not because the building was confusing or crowded or because I had never been there before; it was because I was blind. I carried the burden of constantly proving myself, not only at times to myself but repeatedly to everyone around me.

Interviews were often bizarre, confounding, testing experiences. I walked in to collect some documents from the Deputy Commissioner of Disability Welfare in Andra Pradesh one day. I had already interviewed him the day before and was in a rush since I had planned to spend this day with my aunt. But the deputy commissioner wanted me to accompany him to a speech he was giving--he was trying to impress the researcher from America. But I declined and requested the documents for which I had come. He decided to go downstairs to his car himself to get the materials, but he suggested that I wait up in his office and talk with a blind gentleman from a non-governmental organization, who was accompanying him to his speech. I thought that would be a productive idea and introduced myself to the blind gentleman in the room. As the gentleman began introducing himself, the deputy commissioner roared: "No, no, Madam is from America! Madam doesn't have very much time. Let her talk first. Let her ask the questions. You be quiet and answer her as she likes. Don't waste her time."

This statement was astonishing, considering how much of my time I had let him waste the day before as he chatted, relating anecdote after anecdote. But I was astounded at the sharpness and condescension with which the deputy commissioner addressed the blind gentleman, and even more astounded at the immediate deference and apology of the shaken blind man to the deputy commissioner.

I felt awkward. The officer was treating me like a foreign celebrity and was treating this Indian blind man like dirt. What should I do? Should I say something in the man's defense? How should I deal with the situation? As these thoughts ran through my dizzied head, the deputy commissioner whisked out of the room to get the materials I needed.

The blind gentleman and I were still talking when the commissioner returned. He roared again, "Okay, okay, Madam's aunt is waiting for her. We must not keep Madam now. Come. Come. Let's proceed down. And we must go to our speaking engagement."

Walking carefree with my cane, I headed down in the elevator with the crowd around the deputy commissioner, thinking little of anything except the poor blind man and what I could have or should have done. It was comforting that no one was trying to distract me from my musings, grab me this way or that, yank me in one direction or another, or tell me where to go and what to do or that this or that was in my way. I emerged from the building into the rain, heard my aunt honk, and got into the car. She was laughing hysterically.

"Why are you laughing?" I asked, thinking, did I do something funny? Is my slip showing? Oh no, have I made a fool of myself?

"Oh my God," she said. "Did you see that?"

"See what?" I asked.

"See what a fuss they made," she proclaimed. This surprised me. If she meant the fuss about me, I thought, there was none. No one tried to grab me, yank me, yell at me; their behavior was pretty appropriate concerning my blindness, or so I thought.

"Huh?" I said.

"Oh my. You missed it. It was hilarious. When you were up there, the commissioner or whoever he is came down to get some things for you himself; he didn't even send anyone. Then, after staring at me for a while, he finally came up to the car and said, ‘Don't worry. Madam is upstairs. She is just talking to someone, just finishing some work. She will be down in just five minutes.' Then he ran off upstairs again. Then this huge crowd came down, all in this big circle, and I hear whispers like, `Move, move, Madam is coming. Madam is coming. Move out of the way.' And I thought that perhaps our minister of social welfare might be in the building this afternoon, and she might be coming down with her security guards and entourage, so I thought, ‘How nice, I'll get to see her. Too bad Mariyam will miss it,' and I expected to see some minister. Then I see the circle opening, and out comes this woman in a red dress with a big white stick. Oh Mariyam, how hilarious--the way they made you this big madam."

But then this uncomfortable heavy feeling descended on me; they had all been watching me. They were watching my every move, my cane's every tap. When I slipped on a step in my heels because of the rain, the image of the incompetent, helpless blind person was etched in their minds forever. That image was their first instinct. If I do something right, I am but one oddity or exception.

This burden of ambassadorship and the awareness of being under the microscope never left me. It was incredibly frightening and stressful at times, because I just wanted to be—to be myself without having to worry about the fact that people would associate me with only one word: "blind."

The second struggle was when to chastise someone for the way I or someone else was treated because of blindness and when to restrain myself and keep my mouth shut. I wanted to say something to the commissioner about the way he behaved, but I wondered, not only about what I could have said but also how it would have affected my relationship with him as a researcher.

Was it my place to say something on behalf of a blind man who did not even defend himself? And if I did say anything, would it be welcomed or understood? After all, I was going to be there for a very short time, and nothing I could have said would have made much difference to people set in their ways and fixed in their prejudices.

People may have peculiar notions about blindness. They may believe blindness is a tragedy. They may believe blind people are inferior and helpless and incompetent, but we in the National Federation of the Blind will show them the truth, and we will keep on proving them wrong in this or any hemisphere of the world.

In some ways, with this new war against terrorism, the world can again be made safe for diversity, but in this movement we're not going to do it with armies or bombs or even by beating the ignorant sighted masses into submission with our long white canes. No, we must win them over with literature and education and by just living our lives in the best way possible--living the movement--demonstrated best by the members and leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. You were all with me on my journey, and I want to thank each of you in the Federation for teaching me and giving me the courage and tools I needed on this journey.

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