Eyeing the difference

Nookaraju Bendukurthi

Schools are central to a student’s larger social world. They are places not just to learn about life, but also to experience it while learning. The making of a student demands great care, sensitivity, attention and empathy. Teachers are supposed to be good at socialization, but they seem to be inattentive, insensitive and ignorant of the issues that children with disabilities (CWDs) face. Through the child’s journey in school, there is a thorough erosion of principles, which affects the tender hearts of the children and subsequently, their lives. In this article, I describe my own experience in school and how it affected me.

At the outset, let me confess that I don’t know whether other students with the same physical impairment as mine have had similar experiences. I am partially blind and attending school was an unending psychological trauma for me. I studied in a school that didn’t have any orientation towards CWDs. It was a place where I learnt to socialize, but I also had a difficult time trying to get my ‘friends ‘to accept the ‘mistake’ in my face.

School was the place that taught me different sets of life skills along with academics. The very first learning was the importance of the ‘cultural status’ of sight, where looks are the barometer. Until I stepped into my sixth class in a government school, I was not aware about the ‘cultural status’ of sight. Being an individual with a removed eye ball – with just a hollow in place of my right eye, and barely covered by spectacles – I was a curiosity among many strangers in the class. I had been walking around unaware of something that was pretty much apparent to everyone else. While I knew about my disability, to discover that others had noticed it too was traumatic. It was the impairment that caused this divide, between the disabled and the non-disabled. I had to give reasons for my ‘no eye’ status to those who tried to communicate with me and when I tried to newly negotiate with the world. Since I was an object of Nature’s mistake, I felt like I was subordinate to the dominating master’s (non-disabled) gaze. I tried everything possible to avoid the curious stares that I received from strangers. These curious looks were not only, not welcome, but they ‘defined’ me as someone ‘special’. An exchange of looks is the highest form of intimacy as also the most potent mechanism of intimidation or power.

This experience led me to understand the importance of physical attributes in building social relations.

The life of CWDs in an un-oriented school environment is very hostile. It is painful to be called by your name with certain prefixes and suffixes attached by your own class teacher each time and that too right in front of 86 other classmates. This was the practice adopted by the so-called well-qualified and trained teachers at the school I studied.

Can’t you realize, you senseless ‘normal’, that the combination of language and body do form the self? How can you listen to the sound of or be aware of a tear drop trickling down my shaky tender cheek amidst the roar of giggles of 86 people? And through all this, the teachers did nothing to check the ridicule.

Sometimes, I used to be angry with my parents for not giving those ‘additions’ to my name. At least, I would have been accustomed to this pain of ‘labelling’. I still don’t know in whose name we need to suffer and for what? Most children with disability do not exactly want help in terms of attending/fulfilling their personal chores. Rather, they need an unconditional social acceptance. The ‘unmindful’ practices of teachers tend to further marginalize vulnerable children.

I am well aware that I am ugly in the unabashed stares of the other children in the class and also the averted eyes of adult teachers. I regard my own form as dangerous, grotesque, unworthy of love. All my cries are muted and in “isolation” and are meant to plead strongly with the world, not to treat me as ‘another’. These experiences made me obsessive about ugliness, convinced that ‘only another’s (non-disabled) love could prove my worth. Is being “lovable” synonymous with being “beautiful”?

I began to imagine my original eye by holding a small mirror close to my face every possible time. You know, a great longing to appear ‘normal’ was there somewhere in the bottom of my heart, because the disability shows and says ‘your abnormality reduces you to something less than fully human’. Therefore, I decided to avoid any reflection of my own image, – in mirrors, steel glasses and plates, spectacle glasses of doctors who visit me often, windows, water, table tops and so on. Did I begin to separate my sense of self from my consuming preoccupation with physical beauty and to name ‘the person in the mirror’ as myself?

I wonder, is such self-punishment common even to boys whose bodies are deemed normal by cultural standards?

I knew that a body that the world accepts is trapped in my body. The person I thought I was, or I wanted to be. I blamed my eye for everything because it is the only tangible element of what has gone wrong with my life and with me. I possessed a strong sense of self. But my experiences in school only succeeded in dismantling that sense. School was the place where I never felt like a human. The house became the one place I felt like myself. And the hospital was the only place where I didn’t feel self conscious about being myself.

The author is a research scholar, Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. He can be reached at nookarajub@gmail.com.