Not only Included but also Leading
The President of the Cooperative concluded his welcome speech. The gathering echoed with the enthusiastic claps of a 300+ audience. He accepts the garland put around neck, in deep dignity, the person putting the garland on him, bending low to do so. A common enough sight..? No. Not common at all. For Srinivas Reddy, who had spent a lifetime in silence, hidden from the sight of visitors, relatives and friends, it was a day he would remember forever. What was so uncommon about an everyday occurrence..? Well, for one, the President of the Cooperative could not stand at a podium to address the audience. He sat in his chair through the whole address.
Srinivas Reddy is 35 years old, but looks close to 55. The lines on his face carved out by a lifetime of discrimination and rejection tell a story of their own. Stricken by polio at a very young age, Srinivas’s legs were twisted, and he literally crawls on his fours to move from one place to another. His father, a school teacher, never allowed him to come out in the presence of others, deeply ashamed of the irreparable plight of his son.
“Children in school and people in the village can be cruel”, he says, “not because they mean to be so.. but any disability become a point to make fun of, to be laughed at. There are very hurtful names that are labeled on people like me. Quite often people don’t even call me by my name, but call me by these labels – the lame guy, the guy who crawls… one never really can get used to this, you know”.
Srinivas went to the school in his village until Class V. Then on he had to give up his studies as the Secondary School was in another village. Transport was a huge problem. His other classmates could easily walk the 5 kms. to school but for Srinivas living in village that had no frequent bus service or other means of transport, it seemed an impossibility. Over the years, he finally did manage to join the hostel at Anantapur, 80 kms. away, and completed his Class X. And he was resigned to a lifetime of being “useless”.
It was in 2006 when Venkatesh (Venky as he was popularly called) came to the village. Venky, himself blind, had come to speak to the village about disability issues. Timbaktu Collective was promoting a Sangham for Persons with Disabilities. Srinivas was very skeptical about this. He refused to go for the meetings. Perhaps, it was the opening of a bank account in his name, that was the trigger to a sense of possibility..? The Collective was encouraging the group to save small amounts in their name. They were conducting trainings on disability rights. Rights..? People like him had “rights”?
“I began to go for the meetings then. I participated in the Training of Trainers, in the classes held to explain CRPD (Convention on the Right of People with Disabilty), a United Nations Act that articulates and supports the Rights of the Disabled. “These various trainings have been very useful. I know now how to connect and who to connect with for accessing our entitlements and rights”. Soon, I could hold my own trainings. I went to many villages, talking to the community and training people on CRPD”, he says. “People used to make fun of me. They discouraged me a lot. How long will this organization help? They will come and they will go”, he recollects. Having Timbaktu Collective as a support and backing helps, and no matter what happens and how long they are there, with this kind of support I would like to devote my time and energy for helping other disabled people. My mother always insisted on honour and independence. Not to take any bribes or go the wrong way. I feel by working for other people like me, I can help them also to become independent and gain self-respect.
His mother get his father’s pension and we have 20 acres of land. We cultivate around 5 acres. We grow groundnuts and paddy. I supervise the labour and maintain accounts and records. We also have a house in Dharmavaram. I look after its maintenance.
I go every day to the Sangham as a volunteer. The Sangham gives me a sense of strength. What can’t be done alone, can be done collectively. I am also the information hub for other disabled people in the village and villages around.
The village may still be the same. Nothing much has changed in their attitude towards me. But what has changed is within myself. I don’t care about what people say anymore. The only thing I am afraid of is speaking on stage, he says with a smile. I was terrified when I was asked to speak in the Mahasabha on Disability Day. There were over 300 hundred people. Anna from Timbaktu helped me write the speech and I practiced for many hours. It was my speech. My photo came in the newspapers. He brings out the carefully preserved newspaper cuttings and shows them proudly.
Who would have thought that Srinivas who spent most of his life hidden away, and never allowed to speak, is in the limelight today, speaking in front of hundreds of people? He had never imagined this could be part of his future.
He is one of the Directors of Chaitanya Pratibha MACTS – a cooperative of People with Disabilities. Pratibha has 5,00,000 in savings and has rotated 18,00,000 in loans. Pratibha has even given a loan of Rs. 2,00,000 to Dharani.
Not so disabled after all.