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Satyagraha and disability rights: By Zan Thornton (An activist with Georgia Adapt)
Our travels to the 12 stops on our trip revealed to us Satyagraha (“Soul force”, which comes from “Satya”, meaning truth or love, and “Graha” meaning firmness or force). It involves acting for what you believe to be the truth, even when you are beaten down by opposition. Satyagraha’s key is the willingness to accept suffering or discomforts such as arrest or jail or even the effort of working on the issues all painstaking tasks. This self–sacrifice, said Gandhi, arouses the opponent’s conscience and finally causes a change of heart. More often it arouses public opinion in favor of the “Sufferers”.

Each of the 12 communities (“Ashrams”) we visited focused on economic independence creating services or jobs, no matter the disability or caste. Each Gandhian group welcomed us warmly with much dahl and rice, their typical food. Each reflected the independent living philosophy of advocacy, peer support, and skills training. Gandhian tradition requires these plus interdependency. “If it is man’s privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter–dependent”, Gandhi said. “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will”.

Managed mostly by men with disabilities, these communities let people with disabilities live a full life, included in celebrations and religious practices and with plenty to eat. Baba Amte’s Ashram contained mostly people called “Inmates” with disabilities people with leprosy, deaf people, blind people and others seeking refuge.

Society forces people with disabilities into these self–contained but often self–run communities (thus the word inmate), unlike these “Lucky inmates”, most Indian people with disabilities are viewed as “A fate worse than death“ and outside these havens, people with disabilities, like the untouchable: caste, are openly discriminated against, humiliated, and often abused.

The survival of the fittest rules India: people with significant disabilities are left to die, and thus not seen. Wheelchairs cannot take the terrain, but three wheeled bicycles can (yet I never saw women using either). In India, it is better to have leprosy than HIV or other expensive “Diseases”, for in those cases you are simply left to die because it costs too much to treat you.

Gangs steal or retrieve babies with disabilities and place them with an indentured woman who walks the street begging for money for “Her handicapped child”. As soon as these children can move on their own, the gang forces them into the street to beg for more money. Children who are blind or deaf join schools that send them to “entertain” the public to pay for tuition degrading display of their “New skills” to the public. (Yet Gandhi’s family also had a people with disability. Blind and physically disabled from birth, he listened to the radio and relayed important information every night to the people.)

At journey’s end, I reflected on the violence against people with disability not only in India but in our own country: Here it was passive violence: physician–assisted suicide, people parking illegally in the disability spot; people saying, “it’s only one step we can carry them up” and “we can’t afford to do this for you people with disability” revealed the devaluing and oppression of our people.