I recently attended a workshop to discuss how financial services providers could contribute to making the world a better place for persons with disabilities. The first day started typically enough. Icebreakers. Bla bla. Then we were split into groups – by design, each group one person with a disability. Mine had a man who is blind.

And so began a week of revelations.

I had never known a blind person in my entire life. Our groupmate works as a counselor in the Welfare Department. He takes the bus and then the train to his office every morning. He has a wife, also blind, and three children. “I have too many blind friends, we tend to hang around another,” he said. None of his children, however, are blind. How does he explain blindness to his sighted children? “They kind of pick it up as they go along. But the danger is that sometimes I may accidentally tread on my infant daughter.”

In the course of our group work, we had to carry out little social experiments to understand firsthand how (in)accessible our environment is to a person with disabilities, one of which was to take a walk through the mall with our blind groupmate to carry out basic financial transactions. Here is a map of our journey (Click to enlarge):

Journey Map

In my 3 years of work in…developmental stuff…I have grown accustomed to collecting information from a distance – research papers, surveys, interviews, lots of Googling. The “needs” of “underserved segments” – rural communities, poor urban households, “the disabled”, paddy farmers – are curated, and then the fragments compacted as tightly as possible into Powerpoint slides. We come across terms like target groups. Clients. Customers. Beneficiaries.

Looking at our blind groupmate squarely in the face, accompanying him on a casual walk to carry out the most mundane of errands, the word “beneficiaries” suddenly seemed kind of awkward. Is this man whom I have been so liberally labelling a beneficiary? Beneficiaries…as if we so magnanimously granted them a benefit. As if they owe us for merely providing them a walkway with guiding blocks so they can make it to the LRT station in one piece without having to ask some grumpy commuter for help. Us, the kind benefactors who made such ill-suited schools and malls and restrooms in the first place, and then compensate by concocting euphemistic names like “OKU” (Is it disabled person or person with disabilities?), applying tender adjectives like “special”, pasting stickers of stickmen in wheelchairs on doors…But then forgetting to teach service staff how to converse with an “OKU” without fidgeting uncomfortably or trying to avoid eye contact (And with a blind man, no less! How ironic!).

Now if the world were built by blind men, if society was 85% disabled and 15% able, as opposed to the reverse reality, things just wouldn’t have been designed this way. Isn’t that so fascinating? It never pays being the voiceless minority. Most certainly not in this country.

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