Volume 2 Issue 9 - May 01, 2004

Rites of passage in India

Dr Raymond Lang is an independent disability consultant, specialising in the field of disability and development. Throughout his professional life he has travelled to many countries: to attend international seminars and conferences regarding disability issues or to undertake evaluations of disability programmes. He has worked in several countries including India, South Africa and Afghanistan. Dr Lang has cerebral palsy, which results in involuntary movements in all of his limbs. He also has a slight speech impediment.

Picture of Dr Raymond Lang

What were your experiences of education as a disabled person in the UK?

When I was a child I attended a special, segregated school. It was not until I was 18 that I had any genuine friends who were not disabled. Fortunately, I went to university to study Public Administration and then directly went on to study for a master's degree in Social Research and Social Policy at the University of Oxford. In some ways, my days at Oxford were some of the happiest and most rewarding days of my life. They also gave me a great deal of confidence.

When did you first visit India? What was the nature of your trip?

In March 1992 I was offered the position of Disability Programme Coordinator at the Appropriate Health Technologies Action Group (AHRTAG), an international NGO that provided information on disability and health issues. My role was to oversee the strategic direction of the Disability Programme, which included the production of the newsletter CBR News. This was produced in foreign languages, in collaboration with project partners in the South. Hence, it was in November 1992 that I first visited India to negotiate production of the Hindi edition.

How did that trip affect you and your views of disability in countries other than the UK?

It was during this time that I first began to perceive disability as essentially a developmental issue, analogous to race and gender issues. At the same time -- after reading the literature on disability studies and visiting projects in both India and Kenya -- I began to question many of the "sacred cows" underpinning Community-Based Rehabilitation. I started to wonder whether the social model of disability could be universally adopted and applied in societies such as India.

Why did you decide on India as the focus of your study?

I chose India as the place for the fieldwork for my PhD because I had already visited the country while working for AHRTAG, and was therefore known by many established Indian organisations working in the field of disability.

I chose to undertake doctoral research in the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The title of my thesis was 'Perceiving Disability and Practising Community-Based Rehabilitation: A Critical Examination with Case Studies from South India'. This was finally completed in November 2000.

How long did you spend in the country and where did you stay? Were you able to visit rural as well as urban areas?

In 1996, I lived in Bangalore, South India for seven months, collecting data from four NGOs who were providing CBR services within the vicinity, in both rural and urban areas.

How many cities did you visit during your time in India?

I had the opportunity to visit Delhi, Hyderabad, Mysore, Mumbai and Chennai.

What were your experiences of living in and travelling around India?

It is fair to say that living in India was a fascinating experience for me, in a multiplicity of ways. As a western-born "disabled person", living and working in India, I experienced many different attitudes.

In contrast to western culture, in India the family and local community provide the cohesive glue for social interaction. Consequently, many Indians that I met could not comprehend that fact that I was travelling alone. Invariably, I was asked, "Where is your wife?" or "Who is looking after you?"

Travelling around India was also challenging. In Bangalore, the most common mode of transport was auto-rickshaw, which invariably shook tremendously as we drove along. Despite this, auto-rickshaws were to become my favourite mode of transport, because I felt part of the hustle and bustle of the city around me.

How disabled-friendly (or not) were the various modes of transport you used and how helpful/unhelpful were the transport employees you met?

During the course of the seven months I lived in India, I had the opportunity to develop personal relationships with some of the auto-rickshaw drivers, which made them aware of the issues faced by disabled people.

One of the most amusing incidents that happened to me in Bangalore was when some waiters, seeing that I wanted an auto-rickshaw, tried to carry me from the hotel lobby into the vehicle, thinking that I was incapable of walking the short distance and negotiating three small steps!

Again, as is so often the case, this perhaps can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of disabled people in India do not travel alone.

Were you able to visit tourist sites easily?

I travelled by train from New Delhi to Agra, to visit the Taj Mahal. This was one of the most fascinating days of my entire life. I think it is fair to say that the Taj is the most beautiful and awe-inspiring man-made structure ever built. What impressed me most was the sheer size of the building, and the fact that it changes colour during the course of the day.

Were there significant differences between your experiences in urban and rural areas? Which did you prefer? And why?

Despite the fact that the vast majority of my time was spent in the big cities, I really did enjoy the times that I visited the rural areas. It was at this time that I was most aware of the social, economic and cultural differences that exist between western countries and India.

Travelling in rural India was to some extent like going back in time. It was commonplace to see a farmer ploughing his field with a single ox, and women washing their clothes in the river. I was also aware that people living in rural areas tended to be poorer than those living in the cities.

How would you compare your experiences of travelling in India with other countries you have visited?

Travelling in India is truly unique. One thing to bear in mind is to allow plenty of time for getting from one place to another. Due to the ever-increasing trend to migrate from the rural areas, the cities in India are becoming over-populated. Travelling by auto-rickshaw was great fun, but the hot, humid climate and the pollution can make it quite tiring.

When I was in Afghanistan, I did travel in equally inhospitable environments, however, I was driven from place to place in four-wheel drive vehicles. While this was a much more practical form of transport, I have to say it was not as much fun as zipping around in India's auto-rickshaws.

I find travelling in the UK is comparatively easy compared with countries such as India and Afghanistan. However, for those in wheelchairs, travelling in the UK still remains extremely difficult.

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