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Speak about disability, Loud & Proud – Guest column by Faisal Ashraf

As a child with a congenital disability, Faisal Ashraf struggled to access things many take for granted. These experiences have motivated him to find ways to encourage others with disabilities to step out of the shadows, as he says in the weekly guest column.

Dressed in new clothes, I looked forward to school, awaiting new world of friends and freedom. Then dawned the realisation that I wouldn't get admission as the school felt a student in a wheelchair would affect the daily routine. To challenge this notion my inspiration, my mother, stood by me until I got admission. That's when I realised the struggle has started.

Born with a congenital disability I expected life to be uneven. So was the school playground eventually leading to the slow death of my passion for sports. But while inaccessible public pavements curtailed my accessibility, deep down I was sure that knowledge would lead to flexible pathways and a connect with the world.

I always believed that aiming high would lead to the next best, if not the best. One of my problems is a refusal to settle for less. Like, when my brother offered to get a modified scooty, I said no because a modified motorbike is what my personality demanded. Having that would make me feel like a normal college going guy. This kickstarted my passion for motorbikes.

I became locally famous because of my new bike but I wondered what was happening with other disabled people. Were they fighting like me? Did they have supportive parents like I did? Questions that led me to pursue an MA in 'Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy' from Jamia Milia Islamia University. I was now ready to hit the world for a job.

When you are disabled, the question that arises is - Would my CV get rejected because of my disability?

Charting a new course

In 2013 I got my first job with Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. I was there for nearly three years and gave my best, refusing to let an inaccessible office come in the way of achieving career goals. Next was a stint with aviation firm IndiGo, where I had inspiring colleagues like Ria Gupta and Deepak. Fighting with an acquired disability had led them to become aware of their life goals.

Meeting others who had accepted their disability as a challenge led me to explore the world of disabled people, to understand their situation, and connect with as many as I could.

Now came the time to rediscover myself through Cheshire Home Delhi, which uncovered truths and myths regarding people with disabilities. I realized that I wanted to speak about disability, create awareness.

Cheshire Home gave me a platform to explore varied talents. I won a gold in wheelchair racing at a Paralympics Committee of Delhi tournament. My life was getting aligned with my thoughts and I loved what I was doing. When my bike of eight years gave way, I started looking for a superior modified bike. In partnership with a a team at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, I also started a voyage to make mobility for disabled people efficient and appealing. The second modified bike earned several accolades.

This led to the launch of Glad Wheels Life and we pitched our idea at the Red Brick Summit held at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, securing fourth position.

Now with v-shesh Learning Services, I am able to bring visibility to many disabled people by helping them get employment. Everyday I go home satisfied with the conviction that I am helping people with disabilities lead a better life.

I believe there are two Faisals, one who is trying build on his passion for bikes and another who is connecting with several others, trying to make his surroundings better and accessible so people don't face the hardships I did.

I am glad that I took my disability as a challenge and kept moving on with a clear goal of achieving something in life. Unfortunately, there are so many kids struggling because of the stigma. There's a notion that being disabled is unlucky.

As a society I believe we need to change our perception of disability towards one of empathy. There needs to be a platform where the idea of disability is spoken about, loud and proud. We need to get people with disabilities into the mainstream media and build conversations to normalise it. This way, maybe one day, kids won't face the tough times I did. They will have the confidence to go out into the world and do whatever they want.

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