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Friends; Conditions Apply. – Guest column by Srishti Pandey

Srishti Pandey is a Fellow of the I Can Lead, a programme started by non-profit Rising Flame for young women with disabilities in India. This piece was written for lightening talk given at a Rising Flame event Lead. Grow. Change.

So, I believe that all of us present here feel really grateful to our friends for always having our back! Isn't it just amazing how free and safe we feel when we are around our friends? How we can so casually, share every and anything with them. However, when it comes to friendship and disability, the relationship gets a little complicated.

Most of the times my guilt of having friends who are extremely supportive overpowers the feelings of being lucky or grateful. Not only this, in the past, when some of my friends tried to use and exploit my disability for their own benefit, I could never confront them.

When I was younger, I used to think that the whole class was my friend and that I could rely on any of them! My school back then wasn't accessible and the in-charge had announced that one of my classmates would have to stay with me during the morning assemblies since it was not safe to leave me alone in the building. And everyday my friends would literally fight to stay with me! Honestly, I thought that I was really popular! But it was only later that I realised, they didn't want to stay with me with the intention of giving me company. They fought to stay back because either their uniforms weren't right, or they had homework to complete!

And that one hour of assembly was so hard, because my "friends" wouldn't even talk to me and sometimes they would ask their friends to stay as well and all of them would get together and completely forget that I was there too.

Similarly, a lot of times, my friends would push my wheelchair especially around the staffroom so that the teachers could see them helping their "disabled friend" and give them brownie points for it!

Things like these would happen every day and I realised them way later. But when I did realise, I swear, I swear I wanted to go back, shout at their faces and just ask "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!" Friends aren't supposed to do things like these. but I couldn't. Even today if you tell me to go talk to them and tell them that what they did was so wrong and that it hurt my feelings, I won't be able to do that!

Sometimes it would also happen, that they would help me once in a while and then keep bragging and reminding me about it for an entire year! After a while, I started understanding these behaviours and I promised myself that I won't let this happen to me again. But whenever they would try to use me, I would automatically start thinking of the times when they gave me physical support and I would tell myself that maybe it's okay, that maybe "I owe them" this much.

'Feeling like a burden'

On most days, I would feel like a burden. My brain would sideline all the favours I had done for them and only focus on the favours I received. So, I started offering them extra help. I would offer them to complete their homework, give them my notes and ask every week if there was something, I could help them with. I started putting their needs over mine just to balance it all out, when that balance wasn't even needed.

Even now, when my friends cancel the whole plan if the venue isn't accessible or when they take out extra time to search for places that are accessible, my heart becomes full. Initially it is full of gratitude but then the guilt starts to take hold of me. The fact that disability comes with certain responsibilities that my friends will have to take care of, sends me on a guilt trip and it is very difficult to come out of it. Most times I am unable to express this to them.

You see, sometimes, something as simple as talking can be one of the hardest things to do. People often tell us how we should always stand up for ourselves, how we should always speak up for ourselves but for me speaking up is not always easy. It's really scary But, I think it's only natural to feel this way sometimes. I have started taking baby steps and am getting there gradually. I am hopeful that one day I'd be brave enough to share all these things that I am sharing today to my friends.

For more information visit the Rising Flame website. Or email at team@risingflame.org

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