Satyagraha and
disability rights

by Zan Thornton

Zan Thornton is an activist with Georgia ADAPT.

No one could have told me. The sights, the odors, the bodies, the respiratory infection that lingered for months - and the spirited souls of India striving by some kind of dream or hope.

At 2 a.m., I stood in the customs line for visitors as a guard slung his automatic rifle over his shoulder. Five other lines - for Indians only - moved rapidly while we waited hours in this warehouse overflowing with people.

Personal space belonged back in America. We paid for a taxi and waded through hundreds of people: beggars, merchants, rickshaw drivers - all wanting our money.

My brother Jeremiah and I had come to India to study with Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and his spouse, Sunandra. We came seeking to learn how Mahatma Gandhi had led Indians to freedom and how it related to disability rights.

Bombay is a crowded mecca for some and hell for others. All come looking for economic opportunity like a gold rush. Most have found only fool's gold. More than half the population lives literally in the streets. Those who have some money still live in the "ghetto/ hut cities" because of the excessively high city land cost.

I tried to recall Gandhi"s quote, "Whenever you are in doubt...apply the first test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be any use to him. Will he gain anything from it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? True development puts first those that society puts last." But more often I kept thinking of Goethe's "What does not kill me makes me stronger" - especially after the taxi ride. Every moment felt like a life-or-death struggle.

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 tuitiona degrading display of their "new skills" to the public. (Yet Gandhi's family also had a disabled person. 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 disabled people 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 disabled people" revealed the devaluing and oppression of our people.

Perhaps our 22-hour train trip was part of Satyagraha - stops for no apparent reason, a hole in the floor straight to the tracks serving as the toilet, wall-to-wall people, and sexism so rampant that my brother had to order my food (otherwise I was simply ignored). Yet through our experiences, we identified the truths that Arun and Sunandra spoke: "Our legacy is to continue to build awareness of nonviolent principles and practices, to achieve positive changes by recognizing the worth and dignity of individuals in all communities."

The work of non-violent activists like those in Not Dead Yet can educate our opponents who are killing us softy with their words. We can end their hate, I believe, through the Gandhian tradition of Satyagraha.

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