Win V. PhatakWhat is Independent Living? Does it mean the same thing to all persons? Independent Living is open to a variety of interpretations: for one person with a disability it might mean living on one’s own terms, for another it might include the opportunity to earn a living through gainful employment, and for yet another person, it might mean physical access to buildings and services. For me, as a person with a disability, Independent Living means living life to the fullest, and being allowed to form may own opinions about the people and circumstances I come up against on a daily basis. Let me explain:
I live in Pune, a city on the western seaboard of India. It is the Headquarters of the Southern Command of the Indian Army, and the site of the National Defence Academy. It is a university town, a metropolis of more than 2 million people. The climate is good for most of the year, and the people are active on issues of social policy. Yet, there is a ‘Pity model’ or restricted way of looking at people with disability is incapable of doing anything creative or intellectually stimulating. Traditionally, a person with a disability, say a visual impairment, should live his or her life dependent on the charity of others, or work as a telephone operator, or if talented musically, become a musician. Again, a woman with a physical disability is expected to work as a telephone operator, a seamstress, or a knitter.
I have muscular dystrophy, so when I stopped walking in 1999, I was advised to do some sort of non–creative, home–based job. This was not what I wanted for myself, so I worked hard to learn about computers, web design and programming. I started my own business, taking advantage of the rise of the dot.com industry. After the fall of this same industry, as the eternal optimist, I reset my goals, and now work in communications and time management training. I also run a cross disability non–profit organization.
I have surrounded myself with persons who also live life to the fullest. My friend Divs lost his vision at aged 18 years due to glaucoma. Again, his options for employment were limited, he could become a telephone operator or make writing chalk. Divs decided to take matters into his own hands. He loves to travel, so he started his oven travel agency, and now employs a person with a disability as his assistant.
Another friend, Navin, is quadriplegic due to a spinal cord injury. He is determined to overcome any obstacle that comes in his way. He has completed a Masters degree in Computer Science, and now runs his own computer training business. He is a avid motor enthusiast and uses his modified car to visit places like Khardung–la Pass, one of the highest motor accessible roads in the world.
What is common about these people with disabilities is their determination to make a difference: in their own lives and the lives of others. For me, Independent Living isn’t out there, beyond our grasp. It is right here, with us, in our hearts and minds on a daily basis.