For disabled women, it is a constant struggle to prove their worth
Rakhi Ghosh, Sambalpur, Odisha
October 26, 2017

Even though the number is low, disabled women in Odisha are trying to prove themselves in different sectors. Most of them face societal or attitudinal barriers. The public mindset towards disabled people has not yet changed. People still feel the disabled, especially women, are a burden on family and society. Today, most disabled women rub shoulders with others in mainstream society. But they are discriminated against, far worse than ordinary women

Being visually challenged has never dented the spirit of Manjulata Pandato to try and fulfill her dreams in life. She is the first visually impaired woman in Odisha to be awarded a doctorate. “When Utkal University issued notification mentioning my PhD accomplishment, I really felt rewarded. My long struggle finally bore fruit,” says 38-year-old Manjulata, while trying to sit in a chair holding her friend’s hand.

“I am a complete blind woman. So it is very difficult for me to be mobile and I am not comfortable with white stick, which is very helpful for a visually impaired person,” Manjula explains. From her childhood, her parents have taken care of both their children – she and her brother are visually impaired. “At the early stage of my life, parents used to hold my hand and take me along with them wherever I wanted to go. Later, my friends helped me. I am lucky; at any stage I get a person who helps me to come out; I am a dependent person,” she says wryly.

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Manjulata Panda, visually impaired, works as a lecturer.

However, Manjula’s journey from childhood till date has not been comfortable. Because she was a bright student in school, her parents allowed her to continue studies despite resistance from society. Many, including neighbours and relatives, discouraged her parents from allowing her to continue studies. Being a good student and scoring good marks, her father always encouraged her. “In a patriarchal society where daughters are hardly accepted and parents think twice before investing on their higher education, how a disabled woman will be spared? Like women face discrimination both in family and public space, a disabled woman is more discriminated in all spheres,” she says.

Manjula shares her memories: “When I enrolled in Plus-2 in Gangadhar Meher College, Sambalpur, and was allotted a room in the hostel, my roommates were reluctant to share the same room with me. They thought a blind person would be a burden on them. They would have to do most of my daily chores. So, they wrote a letter to the principal. But, later, they understood that I am not a burden, rather I do much of my work.”

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Sagarika Sahoo, principal of a city-based school for special children.

Today, working as a lecturer in Hirakud College in Sambalpur, Manjulata is happy that she has created history by becoming the first visually impaired woman in Odisha to have successfully completed her PhD. Her theses, ‘Employment status of visually-impaired persons in public and private sector – a study of Odisha’, has been appreciated by many.

“Even though you are disabled, you need to prove yourself by being independent. A disabled woman needs to be educated and that will help her live with dignity,” says Sagarika Sahoo, the wheel-chair bound principal of a city-based school for special children. Sagarika feels the mindset of society is changing but the pace is sluggish.

“During my childhood days, the situation was quite different; there were hardly any opportunities for disabled persons to get enrolled in schools. When my parents wanted me to enroll in a mainstream school, they faced a lot of resentment. Also, the school buildings were not accessible to disabled persons. So I privately finished my education from primary to post-graduation,” says Sagarika, who is in her late 30s.

According to the 2011 Census, the percentage of literate population among persons with disabilities in India ranged at 62 per cent for males and 45 per cent for females. Likewise, in Odisha, while the total literate disabled population stood at 661598, of which the male disabled number was 430761 and female 230837. The data revealed that at the all-India level, 47 per cent of men were employed while the figure was 23 percent for women. It showed how women were being deprived of education as well as employment.

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Dipti, conducting a training programme in Odisha.

“If the family is supportive towards educating their disabled daughter, she will go ahead. The first support is needed from family, then neighbours and community, because a disabled person is dependent, not independent. Though I now work independently, but during childhood my mother always accompanied me where ever I wanted to go,” says Dipti Dash, locomotive-disabled who works as a consultant after acquiring a master’s degree in Social Work.

With the implementation of Right to Education (RTE) Act, all schools should make provision to enroll disabled children and make the school accessible for them. But such infrastructure is lacking in many private, public and government schools across Odisha. “Not only accessibility, the school environment needs to be disabled-friendly. Teachers should be trained properly on how to teach and treat these children. The attitude is same everywhere, be it urban or rural,” says Aditi Panda, a freelance consultant who is now pursuing a PhD on the subject.

Aditi elaborates: “Our society still has preference for a son; if parents have a daughter with disability they simply turn a blind eye towards her development. They feel investing on a disabled daughter is a waste.” In recent times, the attitude of parents in urban areas is changing but at a slow pace. There are other issues, too, which deter girls from continuing higher studies. “After puberty, disabled girls become more vulnerable if they go out of their secure zone. That restricts their movement and most of the time they become dropouts from schools.”

On the employment front, the number of disabled working women is less compared to their counterparts. There is a mandate of 3 per cent reservation for the disabled, according to the People with Disabilities Act 1995, but sometimes the preference goes to disabled men. Manjulata explains, “Whenever a disabled person gets a job, there is always resentment from other employees. It is in the mindset of the people that disabled persons cannot do hard work and they are always a burden. If you are a woman, the response is totally negative. Naturally, there is no scope for a disabled woman to get employment so easily.”

A study states that in most countries, at least two-thirds of disabled people are unemployed. Disabled women find it four times harder than disabled men to get work. Not only in getting a job, remaining in the job is equally difficult for women with disabilities. Accessibility, office environment, toilets… there are many such issues that need to be taken care of if a disabled woman is being appointed. Men can take another’s help for movement and accessibility, but a disabled woman cannot.

“Sometimes, male colleagues take advantage of their (women’s) difficult situations. They use filthy language, verbal comments and other gestures that create a difficult situation for the disabled woman to continue. People think disabled women are always suppressed and do not have courage to raise voice,” says Dipti. “There are also many incidences where disabled women are being treated badly, which are not reported. They also fear raising a voice and losing their job; also, if they speak out no one will believe them.”

Despite the overwhelming odds, disabled women are trying to prove themselves. Sushree Sarangi, the first wheel-chair-bound doctor in Odisha, feels, “One needs will empower us to overcome the hurdles of inaccessibility in life.”

September 2017