Introduction

Honoring Helen Keller by Understanding Disability

Honoring Helen Keller by Understanding Disability

As part of Women’s History Month, the U.S. Consulate General, Mumbai along with Rising Flame organised a webinar to honour American author and disability rights advocate, Helen Keller. The webinar focussed on navigating educational environments as women with disabilities in the India context.

The webinar was chaired by Nidhi Goyal, Founder & Executive Director of Rising Flame. Alongside her, on the panel, were Priyangee Guha, an autistic lawyer, and Niyar Saikia, an actor & student with speech disability.

The audience consisted of 69 people, most of whom were teachers, counsellors, and other professionals engaged in working with children with disabilities within the education context. They were from across India, with a few participants from Nepal and Sri Lanka. 

The panellists shared how educational settings do not cater to children with disabilities. Nidhi Goyal spoke about the systemic ways in which disabled students have been left behind in our education systems. She raised concerns about enrollment, retention and participation of children with disabilities being very poor. The dropout rates of children with disabilities are also 5 times higher. In this situation, girls with disabilities have much lower enrollment and higher drop outs. This becomes much worse in cases of intellectual disability and excuses provided such as lack of infrastructure to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

It is a square image with a dark brown background. At the top-left is the American flag with red stripes, juxtaposed with a starry blue sky; and at the top-right is the Rising Flame logo which consists of a red & orange phoenix emerging from the flames. Between the two is the following text in white: U.S. Consulate General, Mumbai and Rising Flame invite you to a panel discussion, ‘Honoring Helen Keller by Understanding Disability’.  Beneath are circular pictures and identifying information of 3 women: In the 1st picture is a person who is smiling at the camera and wearing an ochre saree and a red jacket. Behind her is an open space with trees and tall white posts at a distance. Beneath the picture, it is written in white text: Niyar Saikia, Student, Actor.  In the 2nd picture is a person who is looking away from the camera and holding the mic at a lectern. Behind her is a sign board with the text ‘AD. GROW’ visible, and yellow- and orange-coloured prints. She is wearing a white top with brown and grey prints and an orange scarf around her neck. Beneath the picture, it is written in white text: Nidhi Goyal, Founder and Executive Director of Rising Flame In the 3rd picture is a person who is smiling at the camera and is wearing her curly hair short and a grey top. Behind her is an open, green space, past which we get a small glimpse at what seems like open waters.  Beneath the picture, it is written in white text: Priyangee Guha, Lawyer, Comedian.   Below the three pictures is text in white that shares details about the event: 26th March, 2021, Friday, 3:00pm.

In her opening comments, Priyangee Guha explored the difficulties of adapting to the needs of disabled students within the educational institutions which emphasise on specific learning and teaching methods. She shared the deep rooted ways in which fitting into the system can affect a disabled child and adult. She stated that when one sees her resume, we see someone who's achieved a lot, who's studied and been able to become something. However, what is invisible is the effect “of acting normal” on her mental health. This acting is mandatory in order to avoid bullying and therefore can be very exhausting for autistic individuals.

Niyar Saikia in her presentation spoke about the ways in which speaking as a form of communication is presented as important and how this leads to her being denied opportunities, both within the theatre space where voice is presented as essential. She reiterated how the many forms of theatre like body movements, mime were all not provided as options to her even in theatre school.

Some of the key recommendations provided by the panellists were:

  • Accessibility is not just for those with disabilities. Neurotypicals and able-bodied people too can benefit from provisions such as allowing screen readers, flexible deadlines, clear instruction that breakdown larger tasks, and going beyond textbooks to explore other learning aids.
  • Give space and time to experiment, relax, and recuperate. Packing up a student’s schedule to the hilt does not always translate into meaning learning or engagement with the material provided.
  • Design programs and activities such that ALL students can participate and contribute to; not just a chosen few.

You can review all the live-tweets covering this event here. If you’re on Twitter, we’d love it if you replied to us with your thoughts or retweeted those that you resonate with.