The indomitable human spirit

Living with disability can be a burden, a cross too heavy to bear, in an age when everyone wants to look and be perfect in every sense. But there are those who have not let the yoke of disability weigh them down, but instead, have risen above their circumstances to attain a life that is both constructive and rewarding

BY Vicky Pathare and Gargi Verma

The human body is one of the most under-rated miracles in the living world. It is a perfect machine that helps one to experience the physical world while also sustaining one. But people neglect and sometimes even abuse their own bodies. This is so because the perfect functioning is an inherent fact, until it isn’t. Diseases, accidents and sometimes being born without an organ, forces one to identify oneself as a disabled human. Disability forces people to modify their lives and finding multiple alternatives for even the simplest tasks becomes the norm. Adding to that is the social stigma around being disabled which makes matters worse, pushing disabled people to the verge of isolation and despair. But this is not always the case. Team TGS spoke to people who are not only living with disabilities, fighting a new war every day, but are also emerging as winners. They are the exceptions who have not let their handicaps shackle them, but have managed to make their lives a boon to others. They are testimony to the indomitable human spirit.

The amazing world of a deaf and dumb receptionist

Uday Gaikwad, 40, walks to his seat at the front desk of the Aundh ward offices of the Pune Municipal Corporation. He signals to visitors and asks how he may be of help and gives directions. He, however, does all this by writing. One only realises his disability when the phone rings and he talks on the video call by making actions. Sometimes he walks to the back and signals one of his workmates to come and help.

“The phone emits a red light, and that is how I know that someone is calling. When people come to our office, I welcome them with a smile, and gesture to them to have a seat. When they sit down, I gesture that I cannot hear. At times some of them do not understand what I am trying to communicate. In such cases, if my interpreters happens to be around, they help. But when they are away, I will communicate with the person through writing. I always have a paper and pen which come in handy during such moments,” he says.

Gaikwad has been working at the office as a peon and receptionist for four years, but he has never experienced any kind of negative attitude from workmates or visitors. Instead people are amazed by the fact that a deaf and dumb person like him is a receptionist. “Most of the people who come here, initially have problems communicating with me. But when I communicate with them in writing, some of them understand and read the basic movements of my hand,” he says.

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Gaikwad says the only challenge he faced was his limited education, as he has studied only till class IV. “But while working here for more than four years, I have become equipped with the necessary knowledge which helps make my work easier. My bosses are happy with the work I am doing and that’s why they have entrusted me with the front desk,” he said.

“I think I was the first deaf and dumb employee they have seen. Besides the unnecessary attention I was getting from them, I had a hard time understanding what the seniors were saying. While communicating with them, I had a problem as they did not know any sign language and neither did any of the office visitors. So I only depended on lip reading, which I was not good at. I then started using pen and paper to communicate to them by writing, but it is not possible to write down everything,” he says.

“I have had a hearing problem since birth, but I am very happy that my daughter is fine,” he said.

‘I would have made something out of myself if it were not for Polio’

Tulsidas Yemgul, 47, hasn’t had it easy. He was only three years old when his family realised that he would never run about like normal kids. “I do not know how or why, but I had contracted polio,” he says. His right leg is stunted due to the disease, and affects his posture and walking. However, the tough times have not wiped the smile off his face.

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Tulsidas Yemgul sits at his bench all day, handling people with different temperaments

A senior grade clerk at the Bandhkam Record room at Nanawada in Kasba Peth, Yemgul has been working for the Pune Municipal Corporation for 17 years. “I started off as the junior clerk at Shivajinagar ITI building. Then I shifted to two other offices before being promoted in 2010 and shifting here,” he explains with a smile. Even though understaffed and dilapidated, his office room is neatly organised. Clearly, here is a man who loves what he does.

“We have all the old records of sale deeds and other documents of any construction of this division. Nearly 40–50 people come here daily enquiring about their old documents. My work is to find the documents, give them for a certain time period and then, once they are returned, to replace the documents in the right file at the right spot,” he explains. Not a cushy arm-chair job, it is a dual job of handling people who are generally harrowed and frustrated and moving around in two rooms, trying to locate age old files. “Sometimes, we don’t find some files. Sometimes the pages have been damaged over the years. People don’t take to that kindly,” he says, patiently. “However, our job is to sift from whatever document we have here and guide people onward. We try our best to remain calm,” he says, speaking also for his assistant.

He believes that he has met good people more often than not. “No one has ever taunted or made fun of my disability. I have been lucky that I have been treated on par with the other employees,” he says in a serious tone. “When I was to join, I was very sceptical about everything. I was worried if I would be made fun of, or if people would shun me. However, that hasn’t happened till date,” he says. Sure, he has his bad days, but they are few and far in between. “Once or twice in a month someone comes up and behaves rudely. Their frustration at not being able to find their documents angers them, and sometimes even I am slow. So some people do lose their tempers,” he says. He, however, never lets bad temper take its toll on him. “They almost always never mean to hurt. It’s because they are worried or frustrated. It is work,” he says.

The two-room office in the heritage structure of Nanawada, is not a disabled-friendly office at all. Two sets of stairs lead one from the main gate to the Bandhkam office. These stairs, however, do nothing to diminish the indomitable spirit of Yemgul. “Work starts sharp at 9 am and I leave around 5 pm,” he says. The renovation work going on at the site makes it one of the less ergonomic offices. “It has been on for some time now. But it doesn’t bother us. It might bother the people who come here though,” he laughs.

Known to his other friends and colleagues as someone who helps others by going out of his way, he has not had a lavish lifestyle. “I have done my graduation in Arts from University of Pune. However, because of my leg I did not wish to continue education and getting a job was also not an easy feat. So, I started a small Xerox shop at Padmavati and that was my only source of income for many years. However, one day a family friend told me about the openings in government offices. I applied, since government jobs are way better and secure than a Xerox shop,” he explains.

“I have two elder sisters, both of whom are married. My elder brother works at a bank. Our parents stay with me, my wife and our two sons,” he says. His younger son is awaiting his matric results and his elder son is pursuing Bachelor in Microbiology. Talking about his son’s career, he says, “It is great that the current generation has so many new options in front of them. When we were studying, it was all about a certain course. These days, degrees also cater to a student’s interest and not only the herd mentality.”

“I wish I had never contracted polio, but that is like asking for time to move back. So, now, I have sort of grown accustomed to it. Obviously, my life would have been different, I would have also made something of myself. However, what’s done is done, and one can’t crib about one’s entire life,” he says with a faint smile.

Getting over the handicap of blindness and leading a constructive life

The real problem of blindness is not the blindness itself, but what the members of the general public think about it. The blind, too, are part of our society. The blind are not psychologically or mentally different from people with normal eyesight. They are neither especially blessed nor especially cursed. They need jobs, opportunity, social acceptance, and equal treatment, not pity and custody.

Kalbande attending a Phone Call a part of his daily routine work

Kalbande attending a Phone Call a part of his daily routine work

Sadanand Kalbande, 31, is an example of how a visually impaired person has overcome his disability and now is an ideal for society and his co-workers. Kalbande was blind in his left eye since birth, and owing to glaucoma, he lost sight in his right eye at the age of 14.

“I belong to a poor family. After conducting primary tests, the doctors told my parents that I was suffering from glaucoma, and would have to undergo a surgery. My parents, after a long struggle, somehow managed to raise the Rs 60,000 needed for the surgery, by borrowing from friends and relatives. Rs 60,000 was a very big amount for us, 17 years ago,” said Kalbande.

“But when the final tests were done prior to the surgery, the doctors from Ganpati Netralay, Jalna, said that it was too late, that the surgery would be of no use, and that I had lost my sight forever,” he said.

Kalbande has been working at the Food Distribution Office (FDO), Pune, for two years, and is pursuing his second year in MA. Because of his disability, his duties have been altered by his seniors, who have allotted him other work. His work profile includes duties of telephone operator, receptionist and sometimes he even works as secretary to the FDO. He interacts with People and provides guidance to more than 200 people on an average in an eight-hour working day.

Kalbande guides and informs people who visit the FDO, about which officer is available in the office, and when she/he will be coming to office. About 50 people on average visit the office daily, and he attends to more than 150 phone calls a day. He also conveys messages of all the officers and subordinates. He also always knows his boss’s whereabouts.

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Kalbande is always busy, attending to visitors or answering phone calls. “I have a lot of responsibility as we receive phone calls from important people like corporaters, Members of Legislative Assembly and even Members of Parliament. I have to calm them down as such dignitaries are often upset if I tell them that Madam (the Food Distribution Officer) is not in office. At times they are also abusive,” he said.

In August 2015, a caller had registered a complaint against him on baseless allegations. Kalbande said, “The person had complained against me, saying that I ask a lot of questions, and ask for details about the reason for the call. People here are assigned different work, and how can I guide him or transfer the call of a person without knowing their actual work? If I don’t know the exact problem, how can I transfer the call to the respective person?

“The office staff, my seniors and Madam Nilima Dhaygude, the FDO, have always stood by my side and supported me. They know that I do my work as per the protocols of our office and follow the norms,” said Kalbande. His senior Laxman Bagade helped him find a writer for the Services Selection Board exam last year, which he passed, scoring more than 65 per cent marks.

‘People often express pity and consider the disabled a burden to society, which is wrong’

Manoj Bagali, 45, does not let disability hold him back when it comes to pursuing his goals. He was affected by polio at the young age of eight, after being deprived of vaccination. He works as a sorting assistant at the business post centre at Vishrambaugwada, Pune.

 Bagali never falls short of the target he is expected to achieve

Bagali never falls short of the target he is expected to achieve

His window of opportunity came when he was selected at the Regional Post office (RMSB Division) Pune in 1994. In spite of his 75 per cent disability, he has never looked back. In quite an achievement, he completed his Masters degree in Computer Management (MCM) while working at the division office.

“I was working at the division office and had a graduate degree. But I always wanted to complete a master’s degree in computers. I requested my department to provide me a convenient shift time. Normally there are three shifts, but the night shift was the most comfortable and convenient for me. The officers agreed to provide me the convenient timing to help me complete the degree. And he made the most of the opportunity by completing the master’s degree with a high percentage. The credit also goes to my subordinates who gave me invaluable help and support while pursuing the degree,” he said.

“In regular day-to-day work, I have never had any bad experience” - Manoj Bagli
“In regular day-to-day work, I have never had any bad experience”
 — Manoj Bagli

Bagali holds a key position in his office and his comprehensive computer knowledge and skills have made his work easier. He deals with customers and clients on a regular basis. Bagali looks after the revenue transactions of the postal department, and never falls short of the target collection, and he has received much appreciation from his department. His work involves preparing confidential reports, presentations, collection of revenue on behalf of the postal department from government, semi-government and private firms.

“In regular day-to-day work, I have never had any bad experience. My co-workers are always helpful in my work which involves physical movement and power,” he said.

“People often express pity and consider the disabled a burden to society, which is wrong,” he said. He urges all parents to vaccinate their children against polio, to save them from the disability and unending torment.

How many of us can laugh over our shortcomings?

Hai apna dil to awaara, Narayan Chinchavade croons in a carefree style. But when he performs the same in front of hundreds of people, whose faces he can’t even see, it is not easy. He has performed in nearly all districts across Maharashtra, and music is not even his profession. Narayan is one of the few people who have learned to live carefree despite his blindness.

The two best friends have been together since school, have done almost everything together and are inseparable. Even their families have now become closely intertwined

The two best friends have been together since school, have done almost everything together and are inseparable. Even their families have now become closely intertwined

A history teacher at the Kasturba Gandhi Municipal School at Koregaon Park, he has been teaching children for 12 years. Originally hired to teach the blind students who attended the school, he started teaching ‘visually normal’ children in 2009. “I teach them all subjects, as it is a primary school and the course work is not difficult. It is perhaps, one of the most satisfying aspects of my life,” he says. “Children are the best any human can aspire to be. They don’t have the dogmas that we carry around all the time. In fact, all they do is reciprocate. I treat them with affection, dedication and respect and they love me back,” he explains, with a smile. “I have never had a bad day, not one in the past 12 years, on account of my students. The same cannot be said about the grown-ups however,” he says ruefully.

Narayan always wanted to become a teacher, but he realised his dreams only when he crossed the threshold of 40. “I had been through two jobs, a business and I was finally looking for a semblance of stability,” he says with a smile. He had worked as a telecom operator at the Taleras office since he was in junior college. “I shifted to a private company in 1995 and shortly after that, the job of an operator was consumed by technology,” he says. Since handling telephones was the only vocational skill he had learnt all his life, he stuck to it and started a phone booth at Nigdi that he ran for nearly ten years. “I was confident working alone, as I did not know how people would react to me,” he says.

“It is due to our love for music and empathy towards our blind brethren, who despite qualifications don’t get jobs” - Gautam Kamble
“It is due to our love for music and empathy towards our blind brethren, who despite qualifications don’t get jobs”
 — Gautam Kamble

It was his best friend Gautam Kamble who pushed him to do a Diploma in Education. “Gautam and I have been best friends since our first day at school. We went through school, college together, even got married at the same time and our children were also born around the same time,” he laughs. Kamble, a music teacher in the government’s blind school at Kolhapur, has been a teacher for the past 25 years. “When we had done everything similar, why not our jobs too,” he says.

Both Gautam and Narayan were not born blind. “I contracted small pox when I was three. The disease affected my eyes and I lost my eyesight,” explains Narayan. He even lost his sister to the disease. Gautam has a similar story. “I lost my eyesight to a disease. It thankfully, did not affect anyone else in my family,” he adds. However, both of them have turned this into a plus point, thanks to the guidance they got early on in life. “In blind school, we were taught music from the first day of school. I loved those classes, they helped me to soothe myself over everything,” Narayan recounts. “I also had a teacher, Vijay Doke. He was blind too and he is the biggest inspiration in my life. So, whenever I feel hesitant about facing a new bunch of people, I think if Vijay sir could, even I can,” he adds with a grin,

Narayan’s wife suffers from a retinal condition that has reduced her visibility to zero. “She was partially blind when we were married, but now she can’t see anything,” he explained. Did it affect their daughters that both of their parents couldn’t see? “It did, but it made them good humans. They have been very understanding. They have seen people helping us through our lives so they have grown up with the sense of giving back to society. They have also seen us struggle, so they respect us for that. Yes, there have been good, bad and ugly moments, but then all parents face that,” he answers.

“We can all crib about the shortcomings, how many of us can laugh over them?” - Narayan Chinchavade
“We can all crib about the shortcomings, how many of us can laugh over them?”
 — Narayan Chinchavade

Narayan and Gautam, in a bid to help other blind people who do not manage to secure a job, have started Swarangan Drishtiheen Sanstha. “We do full, three-hour orchestra shows, where 25 blind men perform the songs. We also run classes for all, and charge a nominal fee for that,” explains Gautam. “We don’t do it for profit. In fact, we don’t get any profit out of this and keep spending money from our salaries. It is due to our love for music and empathy towards our blind brethren, who despite qualifications don’t get jobs,” he adds.

“I have been teaching able children for years now. My students have grown up and made something of their lives. I think that is the biggest take-away for me. They come and tell me that it is because of me, because of my guidance that they have succeeded and I feel a wave of gratitude washing over all my wounds that being blind has caused me,” he says with obvious emotion. “We can all crib about the shortcomings, how many of us can laugh over them?” he says.


Originally published on The Golden Sparrow

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