Shivani Gupta: In Conversation with Ananya Sarkar

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shivani guptaShivani Gupta, author of No Looking Back, is the founder of AccessAbility, a consultancy for promoting physical accessibility. She became involved after attending a UN-ESCAP training programme on Non Handicapping Environments in the year 2000. Recognizing the dearth of professional persons working in the field, she decided to devote her life to this and educate herself further. Gupta holds a Diploma in Architecture Technology and M.Sc in Inclusive Environments from the University of Reading, U.K.

With a first-hand experience of disability today under Gupta’s leadership, AccessAbility is recognized in the country, with elite clients such as the ITC Hotels, Park Hotels, Lemon Tree Hotels, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad Central University etc. She has also co-authored several books published by the Government on the issue, which are at present used by architects and designers. She is also the co-author of The Universal Design India Principles. Notably, Gupta has undertaken international projects with the UN and global disability organizations for accessibility. She is also the recipient of the Helen Keller Award (2008), CavinKare Ability Master Award (2008), National Role Model Award (2004), Neerja Bhanot Award (2004), Red and White Bravery Award (1999) and Sulabh International Woman of the Year Award (1996).

Ananya Sarkar: In spite of suffering two accidents, you have achieved your ambitions and today, you are one of India’s best-known accessibility consultants. What was the driving force that helped you to tide over these crises?

Shivani Gupta: Life is not easy for anybody but it has been more challenging for me. The most important thing that drove me to not give up was my desire to be independent and self-reliant. It is only after becoming disabled that I realized the value and importance of independence in my life. It may seem just like a regular aspect of life to most people but as a disabled person, I have struggled each day to maintain it. Being self-reliant became a second nature to me. After my second accident, I had no other option except to continue being so. Sitting back broken in spirit was just not an option.

 

AS: What led you to write No Looking Back?

SG: I wrote No Looking Back at the darkest time of my life. It was after my second accident in which I lost my husband Vikas. There was intense numbness and a lot of questions in my mind at that time. Also, there was a desire to somehow store all the good times we had shared. Something that started as jotting down various instances slowly took shape of No Looking Back.  Writing it gave me an opportunity to understand my life and be at peace with it.

 

AS: What do you think is missing the most for disabled people in India?

SG: I think society’s acceptance of persons with disabilities as a part of the human diversity is the main thing that is missing. Unfortunately, disabled people are always looked at as a separate group rather than part of the whole. This leads to odd attitudes of people towards us, inaccessibility, lack of opportunities and ultimately results in discrimination.

People with disabilities must be looked at as a part of human diversity rather than a different species having different needs that must be catered to in a different manner. The word ‘different’ must dissolve.

 

AS: How difficult or easy do you think it is to write an autobiographical narrative as compared to fiction or non-fiction?

SG: I am not the right person to answer that. I wrote a book, which happens to be an autobiography only because of the circumstances I was in. Writing a book was never in my to-do list and not something I thought I was capable of putting together. I enjoyed writing though and hope to write more in the future. For me, probably writing non-fiction or fiction based on real life experiences would be easier.

 

AS: In your book, you have written about how the professional sphere tends to discriminate disabled people even when their physical incapacities do not come in the way of work efficiency. Do you feel that a disabled writer is also subject to this sort of disparity or is it different in this case?

SG: I am wondering how to answer that question. I did not face any discrimination but I probably represent a very small percentage of disabled people who have received several opportunities. The majority of people with disabilities most often do not get an opportunity to get good education or even the command over language. Therefore, in my opinion, there is discrimination even before they can dream of being a writer. Further, taking the example of a media writer, inaccessible environments could make it extremely challenging for them to take a field assignment. On the other hand, content development is a profession that is encouraged for persons with disabilities by companies wanting to employ disabled people.

So I’d say that while there may not be direct discrimination, disabled people face indirect discrimination even in the field of writing as in any other profession.

 

AS: The recent times have seen autobiographies of many actors, celebrities and other public figures.  By dint of their fame, public figures find it easier to get a publisher than an ordinary person who has achieved an extraordinary feat but is not well known. What are your thoughts on this?

SG: I am sure there are a larger number of people wanting to read the autobiographies of public figures as compared to those interested in an autobiography of a nobody like me. However, that is fine. Not everybody may enjoy the struggles and pain that an ordinary person goes through. I think there has to be a variety out there for people to read.

For celebrities, getting published is no doubt much easier. The media and publishers undertake a more aggressive publicity campaign and marketing of these books. It is here that I feel there ought to be some change.

 

AS: In your book, you have turned around the conventional significance of both the wheelchair and personal carer. How important, do you think, is perspective in one’s life?

SG: I have learnt to understand that there is nothing good or bad in life but simply the way we look at it. For me, a wheelchair and personal attendant are my life-lines and key enablers. Often in our society, people who work for you are looked down upon but when I look at Ritu, my personal attendant, I cannot thank her enough for her work and dedication.

It takes time to see things from a different perspective but when we do it, we realise the importance of the persons and things whom/that we generally tend to take for granted.

 

AS: The stigma that society attaches to disabled people as well as other marginalized sections is insensitive and harrowing. Like protest marches, do you think literature (which is conventionally not loud) can spread awareness so as to mitigate this?

SG: I definitely think that all mediums must be used to raise awareness. One never knows what a person might connect with. Of late, some books have been published about people with disabilities and all who read any of these, would get sensitized. Sometimes, subtle ways have a stronger impact on the society as a whole. The change in stereotypical notions will not happen overnight. There have to be sustained efforts from all sides to make a visible impact.

 

AS: You have already co-authored three books on improving accessibility in physical environments for disabled people. Now, you have written an autobiography as well. Do you have plans to venture into any other genre of writing in the future such as fiction, essays or poems?

SG: The books I have co-authored in the past have been subject books and nothing like No Looking Back. I do want to continue writing but the most probable writing which I hope to do in the near future is a PhD thesis. I am trying to enrol in a PhD programme at present …let’s see where that goes!

 

AS: Wish you all the best for that! Ms Gupta…there is something that makes me ponder. People are often not comfortable sharing their private life, be it in books or films. Considering that you have portrayed your life in a book, how open would you be towards the idea of your life being made into a movie?

SG: I would be happy if No Looking Back is made into a film. A film reaches the maximum number of people in our country and I think it would get the message across and spread awareness.

 

AS: Any words of advice for those who wish to write their autobiographies some day?

SG: I am not sure if I can advice but I can surely share what helped me. Writing an autobiography was an amazing experience as it gave me an opportunity to retrospect and put in perspective so may things. I wrote my autobiography in phases. In the first phase, I had the basic story written out and then, in each of the following phases, I added a layer on introspection and my deeper feelings. An intense passion and the determination to pen down my life story made me stick to writing No Looking Back, which took three years to be completed. Another element that helped me write was the “nothingness” I have talked about in the book – a mind free of daily clutter and with space to think.

 

AS: Thank you so much for your time.

SG: Thank you Ananya for your interest in the book and for this interview.

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