Monday, July 24, 2017

Beyond all Barriers

He was nineteen years old when Divyanshu Ganatra lost his eyesight to glaucoma. At the age when one is perpetually dogged with the “what next” question, he was told that his future lay in making cane furniture and chalk pieces. Facing the stigma and stereotyping that affects a person with disability first hand, Divyanshu quickly realised that the only way to bring about change was to foster relationships, promote interaction, and champion inclusivity. In 2014, Divyanshu became the first blind Indian to paraglide solo. Seeing sports as the perfect platform, he founded Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF) in 2014, an organisation committed to supporting accessible adventure sports across avenues including marathons, mountaineering, and scuba diving. Today, ABBF has impacted 3500 people with disabilities and 1.5 lakh people in the mainstream community, as well as receiving both media attention and celebrity support. Here is his story. 

Could you start by telling us your story - your work, life, journey so far, to the extent comfortable?
Well, I am from Pune and grew up here. One day, when I was 19, I lost my eyesight to glaucoma and from then on, my life changed entirely. The day that I went blind, I was the only blind person I knew. I did not know what blindness meant, how blind people live, nothing. I naturally turned to the one thing we are advised to do and checked into a rehab. There, I was told that I could only ever hope to make chalk or cane furniture unless I was extraordinarily lucky. In that case, I may be a telephone operator, they said. I told them I was interested in computers and wanted to jump onto the newly burgeoning IT bandwagon. They decided they knew better and said it was not for me, without as much as giving it a fair thought. That action, of people in power and position thinking it is their jurisdiction to decide what I can and cannot do, has been a recurring them in the years since then. I walked away from rehab that day and never once looked back. 

Even as a child, I was incredibly independent. I needed to do my things myself, and I wasn't intending to give that up just yet. But that also means I had to relearn everything - from putting paste on a toothbrush to every other part of living by myself. You see, with disability, you don't know what is going to hit you until it hits you. You can simulate it all you want but the mind just cannot comprehend, the imagination just cannot stretch that far. So I went through the emotions of anger and feeling upset, and then I decided to pick myself up. I decided I would look at what I had, not what I had lost.

In the years that followed, I have tried my hand at all sorts of things but still haven't made a chair in my life. On my 18th birthday, I began working parttime in sales, selling washing machines and electrical goods. From there, I went on to work in the IT industry, got myself a degree in psychology and cognitive neuroscience and practiced counselling, worked in the HR department of a top corporation, and then finally decided I would do something by myself. I founded Yellow Brick Road where I am a behavioural facilitator working specifically with emotional intelligence and achievement motivation. In 2014, I decided it was time to do more, and founded Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF), a non-profit that uses the platform of adventure sports to promote inclusion. Since then, we've reached out to 3500 Persons with Disability and 1,50,000 individuals from the mainstream community. Somewhere along the way, I became India's first solo blind paraglider (here) as well as the first blind cyclist to complete the route from Manali to Khardung La on a tandem cycle (here). This year, I am doing it again, except as a part of InSync #M2K2017, ABBF's flagship tandem cycling event and India's first inclusive tandem cycling expedition, with 25 other cyclists - including blind, sighted, and amputee adventurers! It is definitely going to be a riot, but yes, that is the story so far.
You work extensively to address inclusion using sport. Could you talk about how that came about?
Like I mentioned, I have always been fiercely independent and enjoyed the outdoors as a child. I loved the thrill of adventure sports. When I went blind, I was not willing to give up that independence just yet but all of a sudden, adventure sports were closed off to me. There were barely any spaces where I could participate and experience that adrenaline rush that I enjoyed so much. So a part of this journey was definitely personally motivated because I wanted to experience that rush again. With blindness also came the battle with accessibility. Persons with Disability in the country are barely seen in public space, forget spaces of entertainment and leisure. Except if you think about it, sport is the perfect platform! Nelson Mandela once famously said "sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way little else does. It creates hope where there was once only despair." I realised sport would be a wonderful platform to shatter stigma and stereotype. Adventure sport in specific is all about pushing personal limits of whatever kind. In the process of experiencing that together, people have conversations, build bonds, nurture friendships - independent of disability. And once that has happened, accessibility follows naturally. If your friend was in a wheelchair, you would want the cinema to have ramps. If your friend was deaf, you'd want the movies to have subtitles. The first step is becoming friends. This is why ABBF was born, build on the strength of the power of play. I have spoken about this before and you can listen to the whole story here.
What are some of the manifestations of unconscious bias that you've encountered in your work so far? 
 Oh so many. So often, I get treated unequally - sometimes better, sometimes worse, but definitely unequally because of my blindness. In public spaces, people do not speak to me but rather the person next to me, asking what I would like or if I would take a picture or whatever else. Work contracts get refused despite a perfectly compatible resume because they have decided I won't be able to do it even before I get the chance to try. The perfect example actually is from my solo paragliding flight. I had decided I wanted to fly. It was a dream that I had had for many years, and I was set upon chasing it down. You wouldn't believe it, but it took me seven years to find an instructor who believed in me enough to work with me and make it happen. For seven years, I heard person after person telling me that I was blind and so, my dream wouldn't come true. Until one day, I found people who were willing to have a conversation and make it happen. (In case you would like to hear more of the experience, my instructor and I gave a speech on it here) Unconscious bias is everywhere, but that is also why conversation is so very important. The idea is to be the change you want to see.

So what was your own journey in the process of dismantling the barriers to inclusion before you worked with the world beyond? 
Everything we do at ABBF, I have tried personally. They call me the resident guinea pig. Adventure sports has never made me jittery, or at the very least nothing that cannot be managed. And if it really cannot be managed, what is the point of worrying anyway? On the verge of my first solo flight, Avi, my paragliding instructor, told me that I wouldn't be able to do it if I had any unfinished business, any baggage. And that was a moment of deep personal learning. If you were asked right now if you were ready to go, more often than not, people say no. They have things to do, plans to fulfil when they are 30 or 40 or 60. In December 1998, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis and declared dead. Today, I live every day like a bonus. What I want to do so many years in the future, I can do now. Experiences like that teach you to constantly ask some crucial questions. What is the most important things in our lives? Are we doing them? Why ever not? So now I do. I make sure I don't have any unfinished business.  
How can an organization create an enabling environment for inclusion of people with disabilities? 
Dialogue and empathy. Talk, talk, talk. Ask questions, listen to the answers, have a conversation. Be sensitive to difference and the varied needs that come with it. If each organisation had a diverse population, and I am not merely talking about disability but across other axes as well, and then had the sensitivity to create an enabling environment for every individual's growth, accessibility and inclusion will naturally result. The key lies in nurturing relationships and truly listening. 

What have some of your key challenges been in your journey so far? How have you overcome / are you overcoming them?
The number one battle I think is that of attitudinal barriers. These stem from a lack of awareness and the plethora of stereotypes about Persons with Disability. I ascribe to the social model of disability which differentiates between a disability and a handicap. I have a disability, or the inability to do something, caused by the handicap of an inaccessible world. Disability, I believe, is largely a social construct, and to change that, we must change mainstream mindsets. These mindsets are my handicap, my greatest challenge. For example, I get asked why I do not read in Braille. The truth is that by the time you are in your late teens, the sensitivity in your fingers has lessened and it gets quite hard to get a hang of Braille. Secondly, I realised there was barely any material available in Braille to begin with at the time, so what was the point? Of all the things I could learn, why would I learn this? I never missed it. But having said that, I recognise that this has been a non-issue for me because I had the privilege to have access to technology - screen readers, an iPhone, the whole lot. But mindsets that dictate what Persons with Disability can or cannot do? That is right there on top of the list of challenges.

For more of the work we do at ABBF, our Facebook page would be the best bet. Head here for an introduction to all our cyclists on InSync #M2K2017 and more!