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President of the Children’s Parliament, Swarnalakshmi Ravi has great dreams. The author interviewed her about the issues she faces as a disabled person.
A few days ago, I interviewed the President of the Children’s Parliament in India, Swarnalakshmi Ravi. We have been friends for a few years, and I have always been incredibly inspired by this young woman and her ideas.
Swarna just graduated with an undergraduate degree in political science from the Madras Christian college. She is now headed for a Master’s Degree to the University of Aston in the UK.
Swarnalakshmi was born blind. Over the years, she has been an advocate for the specially-abled as well as a general advocate for the rights of women and children. Let’s hear what she has to say.
Q. Swarna, tell me a little about yourself and your background
I was born in 1999, with a visual challenge. Upon learning about the issue with my eyesight at birth, my relatives with a traditional mindset claimed that I was a child of sins.
However, my grandfather, a progressive man for his time and a pillar of great wisdom, provided solace to my family. He appreciated my birth as a beautiful event. And told the world that I was not a child of sins but a child of divinity. Since then, with the support of my parents and people like my grandfather, I’m fortunate to have been treated at par with others.
I joined a visually impaired school until 8th grade – without the knowledge that my struggles were because of my physical impediments. As a child, I also wasn’t aware of social issues that accompanied me because of my visual challenge. I had to travel 30 kms to get to school because that was the only school for the visually impaired.
Q. Can you tell me something that changed your life?
I joined the children’s parliament at age 13 – a parliament of the children, for the children and by the children. It helped instil a sense of responsibility in me rather than the taste of power.
And was the turning point in my life. I met peers from different backgrounds and milieus. The way they treated me and influenced me a lot – to understand the different problems that children face in their lives.
We had a small forum so we had a tight knight amiable community. There were only 20-30 children. It was first introduced in my school, and the moment I heard the word parliament, I decided to get involved. That’s where my interests were first questioned.
I decided to be communication minister; my earliest role. In the role, I had to disseminate information and read news heard on TV. Eventually, I started loving the parliament – decided to stay on.
Later, I got involved with the state level child parliament team and got elected the financial minister for Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. It was there that my leadership qualities were enhanced a lot, and I began working on a magazine we periodically released as well.
Q. Can you tell me more about your work with the Children’s Parliament of India and promoting inclusivity?
When I got elected as a prime minister at the state level, I was selected to go on UN trips.
The first trip was regarding the prevention of violence against women and girls. I focused my speeches on preventing child marriage and child labor.
After the trip, I realised that the victims of these actual atrocities are not even aware that they were being done wrong, and that was the root of the problem.
Q. What are some special challenges faced by people with disabilities in India?
People with disabilities, especially fellow visually impaired people, are not aware of sexual abuse and important issues that they might face everyday.
The situation in India is still that important concepts like good touch and bad touch are not taught even to teenagers. This kind of education becomes even more important to specially abled children, who don’t have the normal level of exposure to media or interactions with peers who might teach them. Parents and teachers, therefore, need to step in and provide practical awareness to specially abled children in our country.
Another issue is that in India, many children with special needs are born into poor families. The costs to access usable amenities for a special needs child are very high because such facilities are so sparse.
In other countries, special attention is given to ensure that people with special needs can access everyday amenities just like other people can. For instance, in the UK where I’m going to study further, a disability advisor already got in touch with me the moment my application went through.
Many normal schools in India, on the other hand, didn’t even let me in to visit their campus, because, I was blind, that turned me away on the spot. They assumed I couldn’t cope studying there.
Yet another problem is that no subsidies given to specially abled in the government. There is a serious lack of accessibility measures in India. Only one school for specially abled exists in Chennai, for instance. In Poonamallee and Kanyakumari, no math is taught in the school for blind children.
During exams, the child’s scribe passes them in mathematics that they haven’t learnt themselves. They can’t crack important gateways to influential positions to make change, like the UPSC exams.
Analytical reasoning and visually dependent challenges in school make us struggle a lot. Even in one of the best schools for the visually impaired students, (that I attended primary and middle school) facilities to help us excel in these areas were not enough to be at par with normal children.
Q. How are these challenges different for women?
Men can go anywhere. Especially in India, a visually impaired woman asking for help in public may be interpreted wrong in a conservative society. Safety is therefore a big issue. When we go out, since we can’t see, it’s difficult to learn who can be trusted.
Q. What do you think the situation is in terms of career prospects and social expectations?
It’s funny, the most common advice I get from people about a career is: go sing, or become a teacher. That’s the best for you.
One of my blind friends got confused to be a singer. She is in fact, a lawyer. And I want to excel in what I’m studying – policy and law.
Q. What can people do to make people in their daily lives with disabilities welcome, empowered and included?
Normal schools should be willing to include people with special needs. I had to move from Chennai to Pondicherry to get admitted to a normal high school, because I wished for an inclusive experience.
The law says education should be inclusive. But when I went to the leader at a government school, he remarked, “Do you want me to convert this school to one for the visually impaired?”
I wondered, why wouldn’t you admit an eligible candidate, with the credentials and the marks, only because of a congenital disability?
Q. At the policy level, how can India help disabled children feel more able and included in the mainstream society?
People with disabilities should be specially considered and included with priority under all policies. They should change their attitudes about including people.
In the top level hierarchy and policy making, people of disabilities should be represented. I am not aware of a single visually impaired representative in the Indian parliament.
We are special needs kids because a child with a disability will take longer to finish the same tasks that a normal person finishes. Otherwise we are as normal as everyone else. The situation is good, say, with international exams.
For instance, I got 50% extra time to finish the IELTS exam. The question paper was itself in braille.
Normal exams in India didn’t give me any extra time. I would have hugely benefited from it, since someone has to scribe my exam for me.
Q. If you could be the prime minister of India for 1 month, what changes would you make?
Q. What are your dreams for the future?
I would ensure that a barrier free world is created in all domains for both children with abilities and disabilities. If I were the PM, I would even the playing ground. I can make a difference even in a country like India, where there is much hope for improvement.
Picture credits: YouTube
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