Who could have imagined?

Who could ever have imagined this moment, given the 50 year struggle to assist people with intellectual disability to take their place at the community table in the United States?

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It is May 7th, 2016, at the Millersville University’s graduation ceremony. It is time for the “Student Address”, delivered each year by a graduating student who exemplifies the university experience. Daniel Castellanos, university student, soon-to-be graduate, theater major, actor, campus activist, and now, commencement speaker, walks to the podium with an easy confidence. He is the very picture of a young man full of promise, and with just the kind of swagger reserved for the young on the exhilarating edge of anything-is-possible.

He begins his speech with a small joke, delivered easily and with charm, and loosens up his audience of regalia-clad faculty and classmates, and their families. He’s a natural.  Daniel delivers a powerful take-home message of exuberant joy and promise for the future. Just the thing to start out this ceremony, which marks a major life moment for each of the students who will take the stage and receive their graduation honors on this day. Cheers ring out – Daniel is one of their own, and stands with his classmates and proud faculty on the verge of possibility – the good things of life are not only possible, but probable and within reach for each of the students, and they know it. Indeed, Daniel is one of them.

Daniel spoke openly and honestly of his intellectual disability as a simple fact which makes up a part of his identity, but it is clearly only a part of who he is. In this company, it seems almost incidental. Hard to imagine that this man spent his elementary, middle, and high school years in segregated classrooms for at least a good part of the time. As for all the students, university success leads most students on a path that is different than they would otherwise have experienced. For Daniel, this is particularly poignant and meaningful.  For Daniel, university success may well mean a path away from ever being defined by his disability, a path away from lifelong client-hood and into lifelong citizenship. For those of us who get to bear witness to this small but exquisite moment, we can see the fruit of our hard and faithful work in some way.

For me, I take heart at the small, exquisite moments that are mostly unheralded but that signal the changes which are stirring within India as the promises made to India’s disabled citizens and their families begin to take root and grow.  I think of the men and women across India  in mental institutions looking with hope towards gaining their freedom, the families who are striving to create a secure future and a decent education  for their children, and the people themselves  struggling to find their own voice and be heard.  We must approach this work of building an inclusive community with pragmatism and grit, but also with unreasonable hope that the extraordinary will happen.  Thank you for this message, Daniel.

 

 

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Colors in our Lives

by Bindu Sengar

On 26 February 2016, I joined Keystone Institute India (KII) with much excitement as well as a few doubts and confusions in my mind. KII’s director, Betsy Neuville, welcomed me warmly, like a friend I had known for a long time. I felt at home and an integral part of Keystone right from the start. I came from an organization where I was working on a different set of issues and with a large team. I was a bit worried about how I would adjust in an environment where I would be working not only on different social issues, but also as the only one in the office for weeks at a time, with the director and program manager supporting me from a distance when they were not in Delhi, and our primary contact being through video-conference and email. Shortly after I joined, Betsy flew to Chennai to conduct a series of meetings and engagement sessions. I was sitting in the office staring at the walls and thinking, “How will I survive?” But that loneliness disappeared almost immediately. Over that same week, I was introduced to a number of the Keystone team overseas via video-conference. I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome I received in my meetings with Genevieve, Pam, Ernie and Melissa. It was an amazing experience to connect with people from a different end of the world. They all made me really comfortable and I never felt that I was working with a new and unfamiliar team. “Beautiful people with beautiful hearts,” is how they seemed to me. I also noticed during these initial meetings that there is so much to learn from each of them, each with different skills and expertise. I was so involved in Keystone’s work immediately that I had no time at all to stare at the walls and worry.

Before joining Keystone, my thinking towards people with disabilities was different. This was not an issue at the front of my mind, and I rarely thought about disabilities or how they impact people in India. Now that I am becoming more engaged with it through my work, I feel committed towards the issue. After a month working at Keystone, I feel that I have discovered something new in myself. I can feel the pain and discrimination faced by people with disabilities. I was given an opportunity to attend some engagement sessions conducted by Betsy and Thomas Neuville. It was an emotional moment for me when I met with such beautiful people, families, teachers, and professionals, and realized the poor treatment they have received at the hands of our society. They helped me to feel the pain they were going through – a pain brought on not by disability, but instead by the feeling of shame society lays onto people, and by the limited sorts of help families can find in their communities.

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In one of the sessions I met the mother of a child who told us proudly of her son, who experiences autism, and how he has, in her words, added colors in her life. She felt blessed to have a son who was a unique and significant gift to her and the world. In this moment, I realized that we all can learn from this mother who treats all her children equally. She dreams for an equally bright future for each of them, and wants all her children to have full and good lives. She also shared that she was amazed and proud to see her son’s painting of the Titanic, which sold at an auction for Rs. 11000/-.

I would like to leave you with a question. Like this strong mother, why can’t we all play a role in adding more colors (e.g., joy, love, independent living, social awareness, acceptance, parents’ awareness, equality) into the lives of all Indian people, including the lives of people with disabilities? Would this not enrich us all?! Join hands with us at Keystone Institute India – an educational institute on disability, community and innovation. This national institute aims to provide training and organize consultations related to the creation of responsive community support for men, women, and children living in India with disabilities. It will also focus on supporting individualized alternatives to congregate care and institutionalization, where together we all can make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.

I am honored to be part of this team, working to make positive changes in the lives of people with disabilities. I will make every effort to live up to their dream.