The CNN-IBN and Reliance Foundation Real Heroes Award conferred this year on Bertha G Dkhar is an acknowledgement that differently-abled people should be recognised for their selfless work for others. But what intrigues me is why Bertha Dkhar is a real hero elsewhere but remains an unsung hero at home? After she was awarded the prestigious Real Hero award, only The Shillong Times gave a front page report of the award ceremony; other than that there was scant report of the event in some vernacular paper. That’s about it! Neither the government nor the civil society organized any reception or felicitation in her honour. One can’t help but compare Bertha’s quiet return with the kind of public reception the Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC) received on winning the India’s Got Talent competition.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that the SCC does not deserve the accolades that the group received, but the question is why this double standard in our society? The way the community treated Bertha G. Dkhar after achieving this great height is the reflection of the way the Khasi Pnar or the Khun u Hynniewtrep society and the Government treat differently-abled people. It reminds me of the sad incident when I had to conduct the funeral of a physically challenged, intelligent young man from a village near Amlarem, who unexpectedly decided to end his otherwise promising life. A third year degree student of a reputed college in Shillong, he was then waiting for the final results of his final year degree examination to enable him to continue with his studies in the University. In his suicide note the young man thanked his family profusely for the care and support they gave him and stated very clearly that no one is to be blamed for his action.
His parents said that there was no sign of distress on his face before the sad incident happened. He did well in his studies and had a loving and supportive family but what made this young man decide to abruptly cut his life short? Now that I come to think of it, and with the circumstances surrounding Kong Bertha, in my mind’s eye I can see much more clearly what could possibly be the reason that made the otherwise jolly young man to take that drastic step. He was about to attend university and in the funeral his elder brother stated that the family had ordered a mechanical wheelchair in anticipation of his new life in the university. But the question is- are the buildings in the university prepared for a wheelchair bound student? How many educational institutions in the state are disabled friendly? How many of our universities have wheelchair ramps or lifts to enable students to commute from one place to another without much difficulty?
Look at our markets, our streets and the design of government offices even the main secretariat. One can conclude that the structures are not designed to be disabled friendly. Everywhere we look we see an attitude of nonchalance which cares very little about the differently-abled section of the society. Behind the design of our educational institutes, our markets, government and private offices and even churches, we see the attitude of a society that consigns it’s differently- abled members to oblivion. Yes, how many churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras which are supposed to be all welcoming have ramps to enable a wheelchair bound person to come to worship? Or are we trying to say that they do not have any spiritual needs?
The opening shot of CNN IBN’s interview with Kong Bertha was of Pynshngainlang a visual impaired student of her school. Khyndailad was bustling with people who failed to recognize Pynshngain and her walking stick, but the frame moved to the scene when Pynshngain who was walking on the footpath in Khyndailad was about to fall head-on because she stumbled on a stone that some people carelessly left on the footpath. What kind of society are we? What kind of people have we become when we are so lazy to even remove boulders left on the footpath that too in Khyndailad?
In government meetings or even in religious worships do we have any arrangements to cater to the needs of the hearing and speech impaired people? Has the government in any of its big function ever arranged a sign-language interpreter to interpret the proceedings of the meeting for the benefit of this neglected section of the society?
Has the Social Welfare Department ever made such arrangement when the disabled day was celebrated? But this is how we treat our differently-abled section of the society. We think it is enough if we only sympathise with them and the situation they are in. We think that we are doing them a favour by distributing some gifts and occasionally doling out some money to help them. What differently- abled people need is to be treated like normal, independent people. They want the government to give them their right to move freely – they want to be treated equally as citizens of the country. Is the government thinking on these lines? The differently-abled do not want government grants; they want the state government to implement in letter and spirit the 33 percent job reservation for them. The old saying says goes, “ It is better to teach a person to fish than to feed him or her with fish’. It is the duty of the government to treat them with dignity and ensure that their basic human rights as guaranteed by the Constitution are fulfilled.
Kong Bertha was honoured not only because she, in collaboration with the Bethany Society helped build the Jyoti Sroat School for the visually impaired, but her major achievement was also to put the Khasi alphabets in Braille. I call her the Thomas Jones of the visually impaired and suggested that some University honour her with a PhD for this landmark contribution. In response to my post; a facebook friend remarked that since we use Roman script to write Khasi she might not be a candidate for the degree. In that case we should use the same yardstick with Thomas Jones and say that he does not deserve the honour that we are giving him, since he too simply borrowed from the English alphabet to write Khasi. But one thing I know is that only people who have lived in total darkness will be able to appreciate the beauty of light, likewise only the visually impaired will be able to say how they have benefited from Bertha’s contribution.
Readers may not agree with me when I compare Bertha with Thomas Jones, but I have no doubt that she will ever remain a special person amongst the visually impaired members of our community. Now that we have Khasi alphabets in Braille, may I also ask, what has the government or for that matter the Department of Social Welfare done so far for the visually impaired? Has the department ever published anything in Khasi Braille? Or is the government as ill informed as I am that we came to know about the existence of Khasi Braille script only after Bertha was awarded the Real Hero award? What have the faith groups done so far with the Khasi Braille? How many churches have Khasi hymn books written in Khasi Braille? Or for that matter do we have a Khasi Bible in Braille?
Our answers to the above questions will be reflect the kind of attitude we as a community have towards the differently- abled people. It is sad to hear Bertha’s statement in the interview which was televised nationwide by CNN IBN that her institute is facing financial problems. We have only few schools in the state which cater to the needs of the differently- abled people, yet the government is not able to support them. And there are still tens and hundreds more of differently- abled people who languish in their villages because their parents can’t afford to send them to these special schools. The government should take the initiative to start special schools in every district headquarter to enable our differently-abled people to pursue their studies.
Let us salute Kong Bertha and the indomitable spirit of all the differently- abled members of our society.
(The writer is a researcher and an environmental activist)