What is ‘normal’? In this fortnightly column, Srinidhi Raghavan explores the understanding of bodies-minds and navigating spaces as disabled, chronically ill and sick people. Read more from the series here.
I have been living alone for over a year. It has mostly been a good experience yet sometimes I feel the burden of having to rely on myself in a world that valourises independence. A couple of days before I sat down to write this column, I woke up in extreme pain. Due to the lockdown and strict measures being implemented in Telangana, all food delivery services, including Swiggy and Zomato are also shut. So, ordering food which I could eat was not possible.
I thought I would cook something simple and easy like brinjal and rice mixed together, a Telugu favourite. I sat on my work table and began to cut the large brinjal into small pieces to be cooked. By the time I was done cutting, I was in so much pain that I needed to lie down. Abandoning my cut veggies in the kitchen, I crawled into bed and managed to fall asleep. In my dream, I was walking around a huge super market looking for cut-up veggies and fruits when I overheard a couple talking nearby. “Why would anyone buy cut up vegetables and fruits? Can you not do the basic task of cutting it yourself?” I shut their voice out and put the cut up vegetable and fruit boxes in my trolley and continued walking.
Back to reality, I woke up in my bed, in Hyderabad, in the midst of the blazing May heat, I spent the next few minutes laughing at myself. I wanted access to assistance that would help me live an independent life but even in my dreams, ableism haunted me. This phenomenon is not new and is well documented through disabled people’s lives and experiences.
To a large extent, we find that non-disabled people view the entirety of the disabled experience through the lens of dependence. Our dependence to have our vegetables cut, to need directions to the toilet, assistance in using the toilet, help getting dressed, sometimes support for communication. Was it possible to see disability beyond this lens of lack?
Disability justice draws our attention to the ways in which ableism hinders our existence. Of the 10 principles made by the disability justice-based performance project, Sins Invalid, it seems essential to talk about the eighth principle, which is interdependence. They define interdependence as: “We meet each other's needs as we build towards liberation, knowing that state solutions inevitably extend into further control over lives.”
Interdependence made its presence known in my life in an interesting manner. I was once walking next to my dear friend and colleague, Nidhi Goyal, a disability rights activist. We were heading towards the breakfast hall when I felt myself go weak in the knees. We stopped and I began to lean on her to hold me up. Through a process of mutual assistance, we walked forward. Me leaning on her for support; she turning to me for direction. This is not an uncommon sight in the community. Very often you will see blind people using wheelchair handles for support and walking along with their friends. What the world sees as lack, the community see as opportunity.
Disability justice activist Mia Mingus says: “Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer. It moves us away from knowing disability only through 'dependence', which paints disabled bodies as being a burden to others, at the mercy of able-bodied people’s benevolence.”
Part of this is also how we understand disability and care in general. The word 'care' is often understood as burden. That caring might involve pleasure is almost unheard of. We are all part of ableism’s constant dialogue that having needs or a chronically-ill body that needs to use the toilet frequently or the room to be dark for weeks is demanding too much. The only way then to have autonomy over our bodies is to never need support. One of the many reasons, we are afraid of growing old. The ageing body that needs support is not something any of us want or desire. Especially in ways that we have to be intimate with it and cannot be detached from the person who has the body that has needs.
Therefore, through our valourising of independence, we have in many ways invisibilised the very nature of interdependence that drives our lives. The growing of vegetables and fruits by farmers - that we buy and consume. The assistance needed in producing a computer - that I use to write this column. Somehow these forms of dependence on others was valid because we all needed it. Hence, it was 'normal'.
Curating a 'normal' for myself has of course been easy because I live with an invisible disability. However, there are days when cutting a brinjal takes too much effort. This myth of independence is thus shattered in very personal ways. For some of us, our immediate surroundings might not have people who care for us or are able to support us. Then in small ways, through cut fruits, pre-packaged food, hot deliveries of food, carer support to use the bathroom, emotionally supportive animals that ease the depression are our ways of existing in this world; a world that constantly pressures us to be independent.
Turning to disabled wisdom thus would benefit us all. Like Mia Mingus says: “Interdependency is both 'you' and 'I' and 'we'. It is solidarity, in the best sense of the word. It is inscribing community on our skin over and over and over again. It is truly moving together in an oppressive world towards liberation and refusing to let the personal be a scapegoat for the political.”
Srinidhi Raghavan is a writer, researcher and trainer. She works at the intersections of sexuality, gender, disability and technology. She works on programme development with Rising Flame and is the Co-Founder of The Curio-city Collective.
Updated Date: May 20, 2020 09:19:42 IST