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Thursday, April 22, 2021

What does it mean to be an inclusive, empathetic society

As we celebrate World Autism Day on April 2, a reminder of what we can be to the differently abled

Written by Suvir Saran | New Delhi |
March 21, 2021 6:40:52 am
inclusive society, World Autism Day, differently abled, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express newsNo words: An artwork titled ‘Autism’ by Suhrid, a young autistic teen artist.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi uses the programme “Mann Ki Baat” with great success. One cannot deny the superb skills he has as a communicator. His words, his delivery, and his ability to touch the heartstrings are nothing short of fantastic.

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While COVID-19 brought the richest and most advanced nations to their knees, Bharat Ma (Mother India), led by Modi, found herself doing what mothers do — taking stock and acting strong. As other nations are dealing with second and third waves, India sees its economy getting steady.

In his approach to dealing with the virus, Modi has shown maturity and strength. His civility is an outlier in a world where bravado and machismo has led to the downfall of many other countries.

On Independence Day, in a world where such subjects are taboo, Modi once again embodied Mother India as he spoke of women’s sanitary health from the national podium. No other world leader has had the courage, political acumen or sensitivity to speak out about this. This makes me feel that Modi and India could alter the course of the world around other social issues.

As we mark World Autism Day on April 2, I dream that the leader, who showed India and the world how COVID-19 could be handled, will ask the sons and daughters of Mother India to be empathetic, decent, see and hear her autistic children and be more civil and inclusive in their behaviour.

These are people too, with ticking hearts and thinking minds, with blood in their veins and families whose emotions are as palpable as those of any. Yet these differently abled are often the forgotten citizenry. Their daily struggles, their familial challenges, their hardships and victories, their smiles and tears are excluded from the everyday public square.

Inclusion is the responsibility of society — the family and the larger community — than of the government. Parents need to start when their children are young to include them on walks in the park, trips to the market, and in other activities of their daily life. We in turn must respect these efforts for inclusion. We need to recognise neurodiversity and not gawk at the autistic child and make them feel restless and the parent awkward.

We must make an attempt to understand autistic people — their challenges as well as their abilities. These efforts are no different than the ones we make for others. When planning a dinner party, we make concessions in the menu out of concern for our guest with allergies. Should we not give the same consideration and effort for inclusion to those with autism? Social humanity is their right, not a gift of kindness thrown their way as charity. It is the sign of an empathetic human society.

Emotions are the language of the autistic person; they are the masters of non-verbal cues. And so the world must respect their emotions and the limited avenues they have to express them. If we don’t give credence to that and learn their language, we would have lost the ability to relate to them.

My friend Rashmi Das recalls a day when she and her son Suhrid — known as Chintu by all who love him — went on their usual evening walk in a neighbourhood park. “Because he is non-verbal, Chintu has a habit of touching surfaces and passers-by. There are some ladies who always say, ‘God bless you, child’ to Chintu and ‘No problem’ to me, when I make an apologetic utterance. Recently, two women berated me harshly when they saw this exchange. I apologised for any offence caused and explained that Chintu is autistic, these are his autistic traits, and that there was no ill-intent. The next day when we went to the park, Chintu held my hand and did not touch a single person who passed by,” she said. Rashmi could only guess that Chintu felt bad that his mom was chastised for his autistic traits. Nevertheless, Chintu and his daring mom make peace and march boldly forward. They have no time for self-pity or despair.

We do not chose our neurological states. They are a stroke of some greater game. These realities should separate us into good and bad, normal and different. We should look at them as compensations that make our collective lives rich and pluralistically beautiful. The more we see our differences, the more we appreciate that which differentiates us as humans, and the more we are able to humanise and not demonise one another.

The India that has shown great leadership with COVID-19 ought to be a nation that shows the world the way forward in inclusive thinking for its autistic citizens. As we vaccinate millions, we also ought to inject empathy into our social ethos.

It is my hope that my “mann ki baat” becomes a conversation in our prime minister’s mind. And that he will then make citizens contemplate the odds against which our autistic brothers and sisters navigate their lives and how their families struggle to provide for them as best they can. People who are autistic are not ill. Autism is not a disease. It is a lifelong condition.

Once we see these fellow Indians as our own, once we realise that each of us is one stroke away from having our own “difference”— it is then and only then that we will start behaving with civility and demand affirmative inclusion for all our fellow citizens, no matter who they are.

(Suvir Saran is a chef, author, educator and world traveller)

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