Living with juvenile chronic arthritis, Rejaul Karim Siddiquee has struggled with acute pain since childhood and needs the support of a stick to walk. Structural and attitudinal barriers have affected his academic and professional pursuits and he has faced discrimination and injustice at different junctures. From his soft spoken nature and diminutive frame, you wouldn't guess that Rejaul is actually a firebrand legal activist for disability rights. His organisation, Disability Inclusive Justice And Legal Aid Association (DIJLA), disseminates legal information in accessible formats, empowers differently abled lawyers to become part of the legal system and supports marginalised people in getting access to justice and other public services. His legal support enabled many young people with disabilities to get jobs where they were either arbitrarily denied to sit for exams or eliminated on grounds of disability.
Rejaul bhai is one of 20 changemakers selected for the first cohort of the Acumen Fellowship in Bangladesh. The Fellowship brings together those who are pushing for change in Bangladesh in different ways. Though very diverse in personalities with varying approaches to their work, what binds them all together is an unwavering passion for their work, a strong commitment to the communities they serve, and an enduring curiosity to learn and grow. I have learned a lot from each of them through their stories of victories, failures and perseverance, but the ones who have had the most profound impact on me are two Fellows, Rejaul Karim and Vashkar Bhattacharjee, who experience the world very differently from me. Being in the same learning environment as people with different abilities and considering their needs when designing and implementing the program has been a profound learning experience for me. Unknowingly, both of them have challenged me, pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to understand my privilege in ways I hadn't considered before. I have become more aware of the factors I take for granted and all the ways in which I inadvertently create barriers for people with disabilities.
Vashkar Bhattacharjee, who is visually impaired, looks after the disability portfolio of Youth Power in Social Action (YPSA), and works as a National Consultant on accessibility at the Bangladesh Government A2i Program. He has been instrumental in introducing innovative technological interventions for disability inclusion, enabling students with special needs at different levels to access textbooks and course content to further their studies. For his efforts, Vashkar has won numerous awards, but constantly yearns to do more. He is especially distraught during this time, given that people with disabilities have been further excluded from support services.
As well as getting a deeper understanding about the situation of disability in Bangladesh, having Vashkar and Rejaul as part of the cohort allows us to see all the ways in which our Fellowship programme, which has a mandate to foster a more inclusive world, actually excludes people with different abilities. Some of the frameworks we use employ visual examples and physical activities, and our online learning platform isn't fully accessible. Experiencing the programme and facing obstacles with them is impacting the way we think, teaching us how to make the programme and our course content more inclusive. It has also forced us to confront our own relationship with disability and ask ourselves difficult questions. In what ways do we "other" people with disabilities? Are we uncomfortable with being completely honest with them? Do those feelings of discomfort stem from guilt or pity or something else?
What I've learned through this experience is that inclusion is hard. It requires more time and energy, more empathy and patience, more attention to detail and extra effort considering experiences that don't come naturally to us. It can be uncomfortable and frustrating because it reminds us of our own limitations and ignorance. It is the easier option, especially if there are resource constraints, to limit inclusion to token measures and symbolic gestures. A ramp here, an award there. But it is no longer acceptable to take easy options. Because we have prioritised efficiency and speed over inclusion, we are left with institutions and infrastructures that further exclude marginalised populations when faced with sudden shocks. With the spread of Covid-19, we are seeing that people with disabilities are among the hardest hit, with insufficient knowledge about the virus and support services, and being negatively affected by the preventive measures. For example, people with hearing impairments are having difficulty communicating with people wearing masks and those who need support from family members or caregivers are being left unattended due to social distancing.
It has been made abundantly clear that the ways in which we were living, consuming, planning, and building were neither sustainable nor inclusive. We cannot go back to business as usual, and need to rethink our systems, our processes and our definitions of success, for a different future that is built for all of us. In reimagining and constructing this new world, let's not fall back on old patterns, but make the conscious effort to include and make decisions with, and not for, marginalised communities and people with disabilities in the same room.
Shaveena Anam works at Acumen Academy Bangladesh. Email: email@example.com.
Applications are currently being accepted for the Acumen Fellowship in Bangladesh, learn more at: acumenacademy.org/fellowship/bangladesh