The Telegraph
Friday , January 17 , 2014
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Three-pronged fight for disability rights

Stephanie Ortoleva is flanked by Jeeja Ghosh (right) and Anamitra Mukherjee. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta

Myth 1: Women with disabilities don’t have talent or skills

Busted: They do, need to be recognised and supported like any other

Myth 2: If you’re vaguely competent, you must be incredible or inspirational

Busted: If I’m blind and also happen to be a human rights lawyer that doesn’t make me a super-disabled woman

Myth 3: They are useless as spouse or mother, they can’t cook or clean

Busted: Most women with disabilities cook and clean, do laundry…

Myth 4: A violent act against a disabled woman does not count

Busted: Not true, a disabled woman goes through as much physical and psychological pain as any able-bodied woman

Stephanie Ortoleva cannot see, but a Skype session last summer with two activists half the world away found her bonding over a common goal: empowering women with disabilities.

Ortoleva, the founder-president of US-based organisation Women Enabled that works for the rights of women and girls with disabilities, has lent her weight behind a project with Swayam and the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP).

“If these two organisations can communicate, they could support these women with employment and educational training, social service provision or family counselling,” Stephanie explains.

The project, supported by Mobility International USA that empowers people with disabilities through international exchange, took off after Jeeja Ghosh, a disability rights activist with IICP, and Anamitra Mukherjee of Swayam collaborated with Stephanie over Skype.

They kept in touch before Jeeja and Anamitra travelled to the US last October where Stephanie organised a study tour for them.

Jeeja and Anamitra, whose organisations had been working together informally for many years, were chosen for the Empower Partnership project, a professional exchange programme in the US to advance disability rights.

Shedding light on the specific concerns of girls and women with disabilities, Stephanie says: “From the different kinds of data available in India and around the world, girls and women with disabilities are two to three times more likely to face violence than others. The violence comes from not just within the family but also from educators and caregivers.”

Divided into different phases, the deadline for the project that started last year is February 28, “by when we want to complete framing the training material”, says Anamitra.

During a weeklong visit to Calcutta, Stephanie took time out to meet disability and non-disability groups and government officials and held workshops with IICP as “a step towards collective advocacy to lobby for the inclusion of specific concerns of women with disabilities in laws addressing gender-based violence”.

“Some had concerns about the educational opportunities afforded to them, some expressed their anxiety at not being considered as women or girls. A young woman told me about her family’s fears about her going to college. There were many issues. The unwillingness of families to allow them to venture into society at large. Being viewed as unattractive and perceived as lacking in emotions of love, romance or affection. Being treated as asexual or over-sexual and concerns of mothers about violence because one of their daughters had been attacked by a neighbour,” she says.

The training modules are being designed for women with disability, parent groups, organisational staff, professionals who could be a medical practitioner, police, lawyer or anybody who is linked to matters of violence.

“When we started on the project we realised that we need to share our knowledge. While those in our organisation need to understand gender issues, we can try to give them an overview of disability issues,” explains Jeeja.

Back from a visit to the women’s commission office, Stephanie says: “It’s a struggle to move offices from the niche of their work into seeing they have a wider constituency to serve.” She would know. Stephanie used to be a disability coordinator with the US department of state.

But the activists were glad they managed to make “some inroads” after meeting officials of the state disability and women’s commissions on Wednesday afternoon.

“We talked about why women with disabilities don’t come to government agencies and how can state programmes be more welcoming. We are not asking them to do something immediately but open up the space,” Stephanie says.