Ability unlimited

Shivani Gupta’s book “No Looking Back” is more than a memoir of disability

In representations of disability, it is not uncommon to find references to the pre-disability past. G. Thomas Couser, a disability scholar, referred to it as the ‘rhetoric of nostalgia’. “Such rhetoric tends to reinforce the divide between ability and disability, representing disability essentially as loss,” he wrote.

Shivani Gupta’s autobiography, tellingly titled “No Looking Back”, breaks almost entirely with this convention. Although a tetraplegic since the age of 22, as a result of an accident, Shivani does not, even for the sake of contrast, evoke what it was like to be ‘normal’.

“I frankly feel that if I hadn’t become disabled, I would have had a very normal life. There wouldn’t have been much to talk about,” Shivani said, on the sidelines of the launch of her book at Landmark, Vasant Kunj. “Only after I became disabled did I start realising my abilities.”

Contrary to what she had read and heard, disability wasn’t debilitating. “In spite of my impairment, there was still a lot I thought I could do. I felt like the same person inside,” Shivani writes. Divided into five sections (Rebirth, Discovering the Spirit, Learning to Fly, Gaining Acceptance and Another Journey), the book takes the reader through the events of her personal and professional life, which had a common thread in Vikas, her companion of 10 years, and later her husband.

The two met at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, where Shivani was a counsellor and Vikas an occupational therapist. In 2006, after having trained themselves in inclusive and non-handicapping environments, they started AccessAbility, a consultancy to promote physical environment accessibility.

“Most often when we think about disabled people, or integration of persons with disability, we are thinking ‘let’s put the disabled person right. Let’s do this to this person and then he’ll fit into our society the way we have designed it. But the point is disability is about human diversity. I am proud to be a disabled person. I want to be the way I am. What a disabled person requires is for society to be adapted, to be designed in such a way that they are able to participate, live independently, have opportunities like anyone else,” she said. Moreover, she added, accessibility helps not just the disabled, but the weak and the elderly too.

Soon, their efforts led to tangible changes, as a host of private sector clients across the retail, education, healthcare and hospitality industries resolved to make their premises accessible. It also brought them the Ability Award and the NCEPDP Shell-Hellen Keller Award.

In due course of time, Shivani and Vikas got married too. But soon after, in another accident, Vikas succumbed to his injuries.

Although writing a book was never on her to-do list, it became a necessity after this incident. “I never saw myself as a writer. It was not something I was planning to do…I could not even write an email without a typo. It was just the time and the circumstances that pushed me to write something. After my second accident, there was a numbness. There was a nothingness. I didn’t know what I am going to do, why this has happened, what is going to happen in the future, why me again? I really needed to understand why,” she said. The book also became a memorial to loss; by writing it, she wanted to freeze her moments with Vikas.

At the launch, the author was in discussion with academic Shohini Ghosh and actor Sharmila Tagore. Often at book launches, the presence of celebrities seems tokenistic and their words disingenuous. But Tagore had not only read the book she was launching and discussing, but also visibly moved by it. Commending the author for her unacademic treatment of disability, she said the book resonated deeply with her. She also recalled how, despite his disability, her late husband Tiger Pataudi did not lose his competence.

Shohini Ghosh added that although the book is a disability memoir, it concerns not just the disabled. “The problem of disability is not a problem of the person with a disability. It is also everybody’s problem. We have created a social and material environment that hinders the mobility of people with disability. It is built around an assumed notion of the able bodied, and Shivani’s book makes you realise that you are very much a part of the problem.”

What a disabled person requires is for society to be adapted, to be designed in such a way that they are able to participate, live independently, have opportunities like anyone else