'Treat us as equals'
It was on May 28, 1998 when life took a sudden turn for Shirin Juwaley, an acid attack victim. Juwaley was only 24 when her husband threw acid on her face, chest and arms and fled abroad. She was left with severe facial disfigurement and has undergone numerous surgeries since then. Scared and skeptical to face the world with her disfigured face, Juwaley refused to come out of her shell until one day she realised that she was wasting her life in this manner. "I decided to live life my way," said Juwaley. Juwaley went on to start a non-profit organisation called Palash foundation, three months ago, which deals with issues of psychosocial rehabilitation and livelihoods for people with disfigurement.
For a cause: Shirin Juwaley (right) and Abigal Vaz speak during the event.
On Wednesday, at Bonobo, a restobar in Bandra (W), people who faced discrimination because they were visually different came together and shared their personal experiences. The event called 'Tweet Up night' was organised by Palash foundation in association with mad o wot, a hair salon in Bandra.
Chetan Chavan, one of the speakers said, "At a very young age, some white spots started developing all over my body. Initially people thought that it was leprosy and I was shunned by society. My parents took me to various doctors, babas who claimed cure for all problems, etcetera. But the problem persisted. They were trying hard to change me so that I would fit into what is perceived as 'normal'." Chavan acknowledges that he did not face discrimination from his peers while interacting with them but, "when it came to sharing food from the same plate, people refused to do so." It was at the time of getting married that he was hit hard by the discrimination. "I have white spots on my body and hand but not on my face. So, sometime people do not realise that I have a skin condition. But, I decided to hide nothing from the other party. People would approach me with a proposal but would turn away when they were told about my problem," said Chavan who works in a private company and lives in Dadar. Abigal Vaz (33) from Vakola too faced a similar situation like Chavan. The reason being, Vaz was born without legs. "I walk with the help of two Jaipur feet but I am fully capable of independently carrying out my daily chores. In my 20s I too dreamt of having a family but everybody rejected me. Hence, I decided to look for somebody who would be like me so that I did not feel inferior in front of him," said Vaz, who found her husband on a matrimonial site. Vaz's husband lost one of his legs to polio when he was one-year-old. Since then Vaz has been living a happy married life and has a normal child.
Faced discrimination: Parinaz Mubaraki, who is visually impaired,
shares her personal experiences
Another inspirational story was of Parinaz Mubaraki's (26) who is visually impaired. Born with a genetic defect, Mubaraki slowly started losing her vision when she was a child and lost her vision completely seven years ago.
"I don't look like a blind person due to the fact that I wasn't born completely blind. Sometimes people do not believe me when I tell them that I can't see," said Mubaraki, her voice choked with emotion. She recalls an incident during a stage performance at Bonobo. "It was an impromptu dance performance where we were performing with our belly dance teacher. We were unprepared so, we had to follow our teacher and repeat those steps. Since I couldn't see, I kept doing my own thing and everybody was laughing. After the dance troupe left, I kept performing on the stage and the audience was wondering if there was something wrong with me. Finally, my teacher had to intervene and I got off the stage. I could hear the audience roaring with laughter because most of them did not realise that I was blind," said Mubaraki, who works as a radio jockey.
Insulted by her friends and teachers in school, who did not take to her kindly, Mubaraki had started to lose hope until she met students from The Hellen Keller Institute for Deaf and Deafblind. Said Mubaraki, "I met students from the institute and I thought that if people who couldn't see and hear were doing so well in their life, then I should be grateful that I can at least hear. I started attending counselling sessions and looking out for opportunities."
Just the way I am: Chetan Chavan talks about his ordeal as others
listen to him in rapt attention. Pics/ Santosh Nagwekar
While most of the speakers claimed that they are hardly bothered by what other people think about them, often they feel awkward in public places when people gawk at them. "I have people staring at me everyday. Some of them even come near me to look at my face closely. But, they refuse to shake hands with me. What do I do?" said Juwaley.
Mubaraki says that when people misbehave, she tells herself, "It isn't my disability, it is their stupidity and that is why they are laughing at me. Members of the audience too agreed with the speakers. One of them suggested that people alone couldn't be blamed for the way they behave. "They have been attuned to think in a certain manner. For larger acceptance of people who are visually different, changes have to be made at the grassroot level itself."