Murali Padmanabhan: “Empowerment plus mainstreaming leads to inclusion”

August 2020

Murali Padmanabhan is a disability inclusion advisor at Light for the World in India, an Inclusive Futures partner.

Here, he shares his experience of losing his sight and training organisations to understand the importance of inclusivity.

Murali’s story

“I’ve been working in the disability sector for the past 25 years. I lost my sight at 21, due to a genetic condition. After four years I went completely blind. I used to follow all of the cricket matches, I still can but in a different way.

“At first, I didn’t know how I would survive because I had a lot of aspirations and ambitions. I consciously took the decision to move into social work and get qualified. But people didn’t welcome me with open arms, because of my disability. I persevered and that has helped me to grow one hundred times over.

“When I started my first job, I was completely blind and I started working with fellow persons with the disabilities through different organisations. When I was 25, after I graduated, I started organising people at village level, up to provincial, county, country and regional level, to advocate for their rights.

“I started to train people with disabilities to build their confidence in lobbying for access to resources. I have also trained people on inclusive project cycle management – how health or livelihood or education can become more inclusive in terms of gender and disability.

“Now I work for Light for the World, which is working on disability inclusive development in three countries: Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya.”

Sharing lived experience of disability

“I have a passion for training people. I love to motivate people. With Light for the World I enjoy training mainstream organisations, talking to them about health, education and livelihoods. Some are interested, but they don’t know how to become more inclusive. There are a lot of mystifications, doubts and excuses, so I really enjoy breaking down those barriers and challenging those mindsets. When I talk to them, they are often very open and say: “Oh sorry, I didn’t know this was a problem.”

“My advantage is that because I have a disability, it doesn’t come across as a lecture without any personal experience – I have the personal experience of disability. Sometimes I become an inspiration, so that makes me feel that I have not lost anything by losing my sight – I’m bringing motivation to others. Even the hotels where I stay when I’m out in the field have become much more sensitive and respectful.”

Building inclusion into coffee value chains

“In Nepal we’re working to include people with disabilities in the complete production cycle of coffee.The country is just beginning to grow coffee, compared to its neighbours. Coffee is a cash crop, but although it is lucrative, it can be challenging to grow because of the weather, like frosty conditions.

“We’re working to include people with disabilities from growing the crops, to transporting it to be sold, and finally ending up in hotels and coffee shops within the country. We’ve called it the ‘inclusive coffee value chain’. We started it in January 2020 but unfortunately the entire process has been paralysed because of COVID-19.

“It’s a matter of adaption, rather than identifying particular jobs for people with disabilities. As a person with the disability, I want to really break this chain of stereotyping. People say: “You are blind, so you’re only capable of doing this.” “You are deaf, you can do this.”  I really want to break that vicious cycle and the so-called identified jobs for people with disabilities. Because of the digital revolution, so we can adapt to any job and not have to be limited to specific jobs identified for us.

“People might think that’s radical thinking, but I want to be radical. Otherwise, people with disabilities will be restricted to a few jobs, which will be hard to come by, meaning half my life I could be unemployed or dependent on others.”

Mainstreaming inclusion across society

“People think empowering people with disabilities will just lead to inclusion, but it’s more than that. You have to talk to the mainstream society and key stakeholders who might not be interested right now, but who do have the influence. I believe empowerment plus mainstreaming leads to inclusion.

“I’m a community person, I believe in living alongside everybody rather than going into a sheltered, specialised cocoon. That is like being an inmate in a prison.

“Inclusive Futures gives us an opportunity to experiment, test and show how to improve disability rights to the world. It will be a reference, a platform, for future inclusive programmes to look beyond the crutches, wheelchairs, hearing aids.

“Accessibility, communication, positive attitudes and meaningful participation in decision-making are the four elements that are crucial, non-negotiable fundamental aspects for inclusion. And disability marginalisation is not standalone. Take any marginalised group, for example women, or ethnic, geographical or religious minorities, and there are people with disabilities. I bring this knowledge to the Inclusive Futures consortium.

“My ambition is to reach as many people with disabilities as possible, so I hope down the line I will work for the United Nations.”

A man smiling.

Murali Padmanabhan

Disability inclusion adviser, Light for the World

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