“I can’t. I can’t.” Her voice rang out in the deafening silence that followed. The two words were no more than a gasp of pain, a desperate plea for help. But they ricocheted off the walls of her heavy heart and resounded hauntingly in the auditorium. Not a whisper, not a murmur was heard. It seemed like not one of the 500 plus audience was present. But we were there, of course. I was seated in the front row, my breath caught unawares, like many others.
Arpita is an exceptionally pretty, charming young woman in her early 30’s. She has short, jet-black, shoulder-length hair. She wears gold-rimmed spectacles which try but cannot conceal the enthused spark of life in her eyes. She dresses extremely tastefully- bright, pastel shades complemented with vibrant accessories. But I haven’t mentioned one important detail here. And that could change your entire perspective of her.
Arpita suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. She is sentenced to a wheelchair. Maybe, for life.
Changes everything, doesn’t it? Maybe. Maybe not.
Arpita stood on stage that day, speaking to a 500-strong congregation in Mysore. “I can’t. I can’t.” were the two (four) words she started with. But in a way, they echoed the whole story of her life.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. Researchers are not sure what triggers the inflammation. Symptoms vary from muscular spasms to bowel-bladder, eye, brain, nervous, reproductive and speech symptoms. Despite our 4G and mind-engineering-space-nano-nuclear technologies, there is no known cure for Multiple Sclerosis. Arpita is one of the 2 million people worldwide who are affected by MS.
The difference in the before and after of Arpita’s story is shocking. Nightmarish, even. She was living a life that was as fulfilling as could be. At least, it appeared so. That was when MS struck. She was left without a job. She had to abort her unborn child. Her husband abandoned her.
That day, Arpita had come walking onto the 4 feet high stage with the help of 2 volunteers, leaving her wheelchair far behind. She was welcomed onstage with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation before she had begun. Then she stood up straight- without any volunteer or stick. And she started speaking. “I can’t. I can’t”
For the next 8 minutes, I saw not what my eyes were seeing. I saw only what Arpita showed me. Her words painted a picture of the millions of MS patients and even larger number of ‘differentially-abled’ men and omen around this world. Ripping apart the rose-tinted, song-n-dance, happily-ever-after sequences of movies on the subject, she scripted a film reel from her own life, shot on the sets of stark reality.
A story like this would logically progress into a moralistic monologue, where I tell you to be nice to them, look out for them and help them stand up, in every way possible. But that is precisely what you and I must stop doing.
Arpita had contested in the International Speech Competition at the India-Sri Lanka level and made a place for herself in the top 6 Finalists from among 8500 contestants. She did this without any reservation quotas or special privileges. And so can every one of the ‘disabled’ citizens of the world, in the field of their choosing. Maybe even better the others.
Yes, they might need a walking stick, a wheel chair, hearing aids or another form of physical support. But please, that is all.
They do not need constant reminders of their differential ability.
They do not need our sympathy or pity.
They want acceptance, just like anybody else.
They want love, just like anybody else.
They want equality, just like everybody else.
The shining story of Arpita is testimony enough to this. I can vouch for that.
Maybe that was why, after the ordeal of standing on stage for 8 whole minutes, Arpita concluded her fiery speech with the spotlight shining on her being like a mystic halo, both her arms raised shoulder-high, and the closing words, “I can. I can.”