Heros Among Us
Fifteen special, differently-abled people deliver precious lessons in Gifted. They do it by example, which makes it easier to be inspired
When Aisha Chaudhary, a spunky teenager, delivered her 18-minute TEDx talk in Pune, the audience gave her a standing ovation. She was on stage in a wheelchair — an oxygen tank helping her to breathe, for Pulmonary Fibrosis had reduced her lung function to 20 per cent of what it should have been. When she spoke of ‘Being in the Present and Being Happy’ and how she can find happiness in spite of her problems, people found it easier to believe they too could find happiness, never mind the odds.
Chaudhary tells the co-authors of Gifted (in which she is featured), Sudha Menon and VR Ferose of her favourite quote by Hans Christian Anderson: ‘Enjoy life, there’s plenty of time to be dead.’ Gifted tells the stories of 15 ‘heroes’ with varying disabilities or challenges, whose stories, VR Ferose writes, “will inspire each one of us.” Menon realised in the course of interviewing the heroes that: “It is possible to live the life of your dreams, even if the world thinks you can’t have a life at all…”
Gifted need not be completed in one sitting. It can be read when you’re daunted by a challenge or confronted by a Googly. For these people teach you to hit it straight and hard. Menon and Ferose speak to Bangalore Mirror:
It’s a long process of learning to accept and perhaps celebrate the differences when confronted with a child who’s different.
VR Ferose (VRF): Absolutely. Acceptance is the most difficult phase. The faster one accepts the situation, the more time can be spent on focusing on what is best for the child. Every child is different and comes with unique challenges. Not comparing one’s child with others is also very important. Every child needs to be celebrated for what he or she is.
Was it difficult to speak of your own experiences with your child? What can be done in India for kids on the Autistic spectrum?
VRF: It did take us time but once my wife and I accepted the situation, we started to address it. We realised that people, if sensitised, are supportive and are largely well-meaning. Everyone wanted to help us. A good support system is very important to overcome challenges and that can only be created by sharing and being open about the situation. For kids on the spectrum (or with any disability), awareness is the key. The idea of the book was to spread awareness and more importantly “celebrate the human spirit”.
How did you two become co-authors?
Sudha Menon (SM): I am a firm believer that things are destined to happen. I first met Ferose at the launch of my debut and second book. When we got talking we discovered a lot of shared concerns about various subjects and so, when he suggested we write a book about people with disability, I was more than happy to. The idea for Gifted came from Ferose’s vision of inclusivity and my desire to tell the inspirational stories of ordinary people. We did most of the interviews together and the entire process was based on mutual trust and complementing each other’s strengths.
Tell us about meeting the heroes.
SM: Like many people, I have lived without coming in close contact with a person with disability and so, had little idea of what it means to be born in a country with a disability. During the first few interviews, I had a nagging fear that I would somehow upset the person. But gradually, I realised that these people have more maturity and empathy than us. Given how much they have gone through, they have learnt not to sweat the small stuff. They live with amazing grace and are happy to reach out to you, if you let them. It has made me a different person. I am now more resilient, more appreciative of the blessings in my life, more determined to do the best I can in everything.
What can corporates do to make the government more sensitive to the needs of handicapped and differently-abled people?
VRF: We need a holistic approach. Everyone needs to contribute – government, corporates, non-profit organisations, hospitals, schools, individuals… Corporates can lead this as they have the financial resources and passionate people with innovative ideas. Governments are required at a policy level. Schools have to become inclusive. Everyone needs to work together to create a inclusive society.
How did you shortlist the 15? Will Gifted be the first of a series?
VRF: We had a list of close to 50 people and interviewed around 25. Finally we selected the 15 most diverse (with respect to their backgrounds and disabilities). Based on the response of the first book, we will work on volume two. On a personal note, if the book makes a positive difference to even ONE person, my mission is accomplished (although I hope it reaches millions of readers). SM: If I name a few people we wanted to include, I will be doing great injustice to the thousands with disability living their lives with extraordinary courage in a skewed society. Yes, at some point we would love to make this a series. Spreading stories of their courage is one way we can create awareness about the lives of people with disability.
The message you wish to convey through the book?
VRF: The heroes here have overcome unbelievable challenges to reach where they have. They have maximized their potential despite limitations. This is a great lesson for everyone – not to get bogged down by problems but to make the most of what you have. Also, all the heroes have overcome their physical challenges by sheer willpower. It is a triumph of the mind over the body!
Several differently-abled people may be heroes simply by leading their lives. What about those with no grand result to show?
VRF: Absolutely. In fact we believe success is a very relative term. One of the heroes in the book, Mohammed Sharef, is a music teacher who teaches music to children in the slums. We have included him in the book for his passion and for being a wonderful human being. SM: None of the people in Gifted are privileged in any way. What made them heroes is the way they lived their lives, rising above circumstances. It is not necessary for each of us to have grand results. It is possible though to live each day of our life with courage and dignity no matter what our circumstances. That is what we are saying in Gifted.
In the Atelier
VR FEROSE and SUDHA MENON
As parents to their son who happens to be on the Autistic Spectrum, VR Ferose, the Senior VP at SAP ( he conceived the India Inclusion Summit in 2012), writes that he and his wife have signed up for simple pleasures of life. Gifted is his debut book. Sudha Menon is a published author with two nonfiction books Leading Ladies and Legacy to her credit. Gifted took 2 years but as she says, “barring a few moments when I was emotionally drained from hearing the stories, it was a journey like nothing I had ever experienced before.”
While the rest of the world has taken great strides in mainstreaming the differently abled into the larger contours of their society, life continues to be an uphill struggle for the differently-abled in India. They continue to be burdened with their ‘handicapped’ status and live a life on the fringes, largely forgotten by a society which is galloping ahead at a fast pace. Born ‘different’ from the rest of us, they have been put in a position of disadvantage in a world where being ‘normal’ is at such a premium. Gifted celebrates the journeys of these very Indians who are neither CEOs nor part of any influential power clubs, but special in their own way. These are stories that can inspire even the most ‘abled’ among us.
Note: This article first appeared in #bangaloremirror here.