Vibhu Sharma is a passionate disability advocate, working as a disability and inclusion research consultant with Theirworld, co-chairing the Global Partnership for Children with Disabilities – Youth Council, and serving as a Global Board Member of Generation Unlimited.
1. What is your number one passion?
Inclusion. I want to see young people with disabilities included in education, employment, and all social activities. More than often, societal, physical and environmental barriers restrict equal access to these activities, which inhibit young people with disabilities from fulfilling their dreams and living life to its fullest. We do have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which protects the rights of persons with disabilities and provides obligations for states to protect, promote and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights by all persons with disabilities without any discrimination. Yet, young people with disabilities, worldwide, face challenges due to discrimination, stigma and prejudice. I am passionate to raise social awareness, and educate people, especially young people, to accept young people with disabilities as equals, to stop discrimination, to think of them as their peers who may be physically different from them, but are just like them, and to let them have equal educational, learning and employment opportunities.
2. What inspired you to be a disability advocate?
My life experiences. I lost my eyesight at the age of ten. As the darkness of my eyesight tried enveloping me, I realized the discriminatory attitude that non-disabled people have for persons with disabilities. Education became hard to access, while the sighted friends became friends-no-longer. For a long time, I kept thinking that I was at fault, there was something wrong with me, because of the hardships I faced. But then, I was invited to the First International Congress of the Blind and Partially Sighted Children ‘Listening to the Children’ organized by the Spanish National Organization of the Blind (ONCE) and the World Blind Union (WBU) in Spain, in 2008. As I discussed education, family and social and peer inclusion with twenty other young people with a visual impairment from different countries, I realized that blind people everywhere faced the problems as I did. It wasn’t a problem with me, it was with society. I was still a fortunate one, as I had a good family, and was by then, studying in a mainstream school. I made my choices then. Barriers needed to be broken. I wanted to work for and with people with disabilities on education, equal opportunity and social and peer inclusion.
Eleven years later, it would perhaps, be more appropriate to ask what makes me continue on this path? I would say, still my life experiences, and the success I have had while doing what I could.
A graduate with a Master’s degree from one of the world’s best universities, and an alumna of the best high school as well as undergraduate academic institutions in India, standing at the threshold of my professional career, I still feel baffled and worried to think of what lies ahead, and this is mainly because I have a disability, and I regularly see young people being discriminated from employment opportunities because of their disabilities. The challenges continue, and so does the hard work to advocate for and with young people with disabilities.
3. What were some of the challenges that you face in your advocacy work?
Negative social attitudes have always remained at the core of what I do. Many people do not like the choices I have made, because they think that I am spending time on something that’s not going to change. But my answer to all those people is, that unless we try to change something, it would, as it is, never change. I want to do my bit by trying. The most heart-breaking challenge is the resistance and the refutation of older adults to allow young people to join forces and work on disability issues. But it is important that they are allowed to participate and facilitated to learn.
4. What is one project you are most proud of?
Everything that I have done in a very small professional career of my disability advocacy is endearing to me and has taught me something new. But there are three things that I would really like to highlight.
I had advocated and had successfully convinced the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the highest school exam conducting body in India, to allow visually impaired students write their exams independently on a computer with screen-reading software, as against the traditional practice of providing amanuensis. It was a struggle to convince the board to make this change, as this was a new system for them. But I kept on, and gave them practical demos of using computers with screen-readers, and convinced them of how it made students with visual impairment academically more independent. It’s been six years that this gigantic policy change is now in place, and students with visual impairment benefit from this provision every year. In fact, just two days ago, I received an E-mail from a blind student in Mumbai, thanking me, for bringing about this change, as he felt very comfortable and independent writing his exams. “I didn’t have to worry about finding myself a scribe, and if he would read things properly for me, or if he would write fast enough for me to finish my paper in time. Thank you for doing this,” he had written.
My second most delightful highlight is the project I worked on mapping leadership and mentoring opportunities for young people with disabilities. I did this project with Partners for Youth with Disabilities, USA and Mobility International USA. I designed the survey, helped in its circulation, and ensured the accessibility of the survey report. I am delighted to have worked on this, as it has now given us a clear picture of where energies need to be invested to make leadership and mentoring opportunities available to young people with disabilities.
Thirdly, I am utmost happy about the project I am currently working on with Theirworld on disability and inclusive education and assistive technology. Despite all hurdles, I am happy for the light I have been able to light for myself and others like me.
5. What have you learned by being a disability advocate?
There are many national and international policies protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, but policies alone do not help. There are many organizations that work for people with disabilities, but they are not sufficient. Policies need to be implemented. There needs to be collaboration between the organizations, higher stakeholders and young people with disabilities to identify, develop, and implement solutions to the difficulties that people with disabilities face. Young people with disabilities must play an active role in introducing a change in initiatives that would help them and their peers. Just saying that things won’t change, or succumbing to them as they are, is not going to help, it won’t change anything neither for this, nor for the future generation. There needs to be an action-oriented approach.
6. What do you believe has contributed to your success?
Persistence, determination, hard work, and perseverance. Most importantly, the love, understanding, encouragement and support of my most wonderful parents. They have always supported me in every way they could, in whatever I wanted to do. They never let me feel that I was any less capable than non-disabled children or young people around me. They accepted me the way I am, and always encouraged me to continue.
7. What is your advice for young people who want to see a better world, who want to do something about it, but who are not sure how to start?
Remember that old saying, ‘Change begins with yourself’? Think of it in practical terms. Change does really begin with you. If you see a person with a disability that you do not know how to accommodate or include, ask yourself, how would you wish to be accommodated if you were in their shoes? The answer you have is actually the way you should include this person with a disability.
Most importantly, speak to people with disabilities. Trust me, we love being spoken to. Ask us how you can include us in your activities.
Most non-disabled people think they know what the difficulties of people with disabilities are, and they have the solutions. But that’s often not the case, and it is a dangerous thought. Talk to people with disabilities, and identify their difficulties and their solutions with them. Remember, that they are not beneficiaries of welfare accorded to them, but want to be, and have the capability to be active contributors to society, to work, and to all activities that non-disabled people engage or participate in. They need to be given the opportunity, the chance to be involved.
Finally, most non-disabled people think that inclusion is expensive. But let me tell you. It is not. In fact, it is one of the best investments you can have in any educational, financial or social endeavour. When you exclude young people with disabilities, you not only deny them their right to be involved, but you also deny yourself the opportunity to gain from their involvement and the asset that they can be. Including them would mean, more knowledge, more awareness, and more resource personnel.