The Story Of Divyanshu Ganatra: Blind Psychologist, Paraglider & Advocate For Disability Rights

Divyanshu - source-thesalute.in

Divyanshu Ganatra considers himself to be a shy individual. He did not want his personal achievements and activities to be out and lauded in the public space, but he doesn’t mind the revelations so long as they can help other people. An act of altruism you would find hard to believe once you consider the striking achievements he has garnered over the past 37 years.

An IT Expert. Winner Of A National Award from the Vice-President Of India. A Psychologist. An Adventure Sports Enthusiast who is an avid mountain climber and para-glider. An entrepreneur. With one small detail to complete the picture–Divyanshu is blind.

Divyanshu featured on our list of people with dual lives for his amazing work as a psychologist as well as a social entrepreneur with Adventure Beyond Boundaries, an initiative to promote adventure sports among individuals with disabilities and even grabbed the national headlines last year when he became the first blind Indian to fly as a solo para-glider. Homegrown got an opportunity to talk to the man behind the accolades and get a few revelations, which India needs to sit up and pay attention to as far as matters concerning the care of disabled individuals in our country.

The question at the tip of all our tongues, initially–how can blind people do the things he does?

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Divyanshu lost his eyesight at the age of 19 to glaucoma. He went to a premium rehabilitation centre with the hopes of getting equipped for life but the truth was far from it. “When I went for rehab after going blind, the only vocations or careers suggested to me were chalk making, cane furniture, or a telephone operator,” describes Ganatra. He said that while there was nothing wrong with these professions, they were not financially viable alternatives to him. “When I asked them what more a blind person could do, the answer was – this is the best a blind person can do.” An answer Divyanshu was far from impressed with.

He was deeply disturbed by the conditions at the rehab facility as well. “When I saw this, I said no way. You don’t decide for me, you don’t decide for anyone here. I was seeing how they were treating people who were from poor and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. It angered me that just because they don’t have the means doesn’t mean you treat them, or anyone, like that. I am not going to stay here and take this. You don’t have the right to tell me what I can or cannot do. I had lost my eyesight, but I had not lost my dignity.”

Divyanshu could not sit there for more than an hour, and soon left the rehabilitation facility. “There are just times when you get angry and that anger helps you. I was lucky in being able to channel that anger well.”  IT was in its heydays at the time as a new and upcoming profession and piqued Divyanshu’s interest. But skepticism made its way there too. “They said how can blind people use or learn computers. That’s when I made up my mind that that was what I wanted to do.”

A seven-year stint in IT followed, after which an epiphany had him switch streams. “I took up IT as challenge. It was almost seven years of proving something, and I felt I had proved my point. I am very successful in IT and I am happy doing this. I will be happier doing something more.” The human brain and people are something Divyanshu was always passionate about, and after seven years of working with machines and Artificial Intelligence, he started becoming curious about the operations of the human brain. “That is the only piece of machinery we haven’t really understood and it’s the most magnificent piece of machine ever.” That’s when he quit IT and went back to college to complete his studies in psychology.

Even though he had the necessary merit, he was denied admission by the college. When Ganatra wrote a letter to the principal, he replied saying that there was a rule that visually impaired people could be denied admissions. Ganatra retorted asking for the rule to be shown to him. He again ended up fighting for his education, and even though the years at the college were difficult due to the attitude of the teachers, he finished his studies and started his foray into psychology.

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Ganatra’s Yellow Brick Road, which provides individual, educational and corporate solutions through psychology and counselling, is based on two essential foundations – empathy and thinking. “I think we have stopped thinking for a change. That has two connotations – one of course we have stopped ‘Thinking For a Change’ and the other is a play on words – ‘Thinking, For a Change’,” chuckled Divyanshu.“I think people have just stopped thinking, stopped processing. We don’t reflect on our thoughts. We have almost become automatons. Thinking is linked to our emotions and we can manage our emotions by managing our thoughts. You create your own reality and your reality is nothing but your thoughts.”

“Empathy is a fundamental foundation of relationship management. Because no matter who I am engaging with in this world, from people to animals to trees to environment, if I don’t have empathy,  and I don’t understand how it’s affecting the world outside or how my actions are affecting the environment and people around me, everything breaks down. That is what’s happening today, things are breaking down” explained Divyanshu. It’s this empathy which one finds lacking when it comes to the cause of disability rights in India.

“I am not taught how to fish, but I am given a fish a day so I keep coming back,” Ganatra explains. ”The government, society and even the NGOs need to function for rights and not charity.”

The question of disability rights and causes in India is something which ignites a strong response from Divyanshu. As per the 2011 Census, 26.8 million disabled individuals and almost 20% of the world’s blind population resides in India . Yet, the difficulties which are faced by them range from bureaucratic apathy to misguided over-protectiveness.

“The biggest problem in India is that we have a charity-based model and not a rights-based model like in the West,” Divyanshu points out. “In India, if a public space is not accessible, I can’t sue anybody. I can’t raise my voice or say anything. Although India has ratified the UN Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities, we can only expect facilities or equal access in ideal conditions if finances permit, and under appropriate settings.” 

On athletes being treated like third-class citizens.

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The recent events involving the Paralympic Committee of India being suspended by the International Paralympic Committee and subsequently, by the Sports Ministry drew sharp criticism from Ganatra. “All our sportspersons can’t participate in any international sport competition, which means that all my rankings and efforts are gone. The Sports Ministry goes ahead and suspends PCI, but who is fighting for our rights? Nobody. Who is suffering in the end?  We can’t simply ban it, we have to improve it and  ensure sports people get their rights in a manner which will enable them but instead of empowering them, they just shut it down. They are not thinking about all our athletes who want to participate.”

The other little-discussed problem faced by the community is the patronising attitude and over-protectiveness which is meted out. “Most of the individuals whom I  interact with are young adults who come from a very institutionalised mindset. They don’t talk in terms of rights, because they don’t think they have rights. They have grown up on the charity model where they have grown up in silos like special schools, which they have gone to.”

He explains, “Say I am a blind boy who is born blind, then I go to a blind school. The only access I have is to the blind world until the age of 16 years, which are my most formative years. I have no real world experience, no contact with the outside world but suddenly I am thrown into the world of mainstream through college at the age of 17, which I am completely ill-equipped to handle. I only know my blind world so then I just find my blind friends and I stick to them. I don’t engage with the mainstream community because I don’t know how to socialise. I am not taught how to socialise.”

The ‘silos’ created have a dual effect-on the mainstream as well as the disabled and secluded community. “I have never interacted with the mainstream community and the mainstream community has never seen somebody with disability because we have always grown up in silos. The lack of access and infrastructure has ensured that you don’t see us around. So we are only looked at with curiosity or sympathy or pity at best, and that’s the engagement.” This dearth of knowledge in mainstream then propagates stereotypes such as the ‘blind man with dark goggles, white stick‘ or ‘extra sensory perception‘ but never do you consider or think of him/her as a solo para-glider or mountain climber, something Divyanshu actually is.

The NGOs and Blind Aid organisations are also not free from guilt, Ganatra rues from his personal experience, often setting limits about what blind/disabled people can or cannot do. “NGOs have a very patronising attitude towards persons with disability. If you notice most people in these organisations are able-bodied individuals, which means we don’t have a voice because somebody else is deciding for us. An able-bodied person will never ever understand the experience of my abilities or what my life really is. Organisations also work on the charity model, which is very disenfranchising – it’s more like humouring us.” To quote Oscar Wilde, ’Charity is nothing but a way of humouring people. Ganatra also explained the logic behind most of the NGOs functioning, ”If tomorrow I am equipped with my right, and I am independent, what will they do? What will the NGO do? They have nothing to do. They don’t want to really help us and makes independent. That is the bottomline, the root problem in India. I am not taught how to fish, I am given a fish a day so I keep coming back.” 

When asked about the role NGOs and organisations should play for the cause of disability, Ganatra stresses on a key difference:

On what we, ordinary citizens, can do to empower disabled people.

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The best role you can function in is supportive. We want NGOs; they are important. They have to be partners and support us in our cause and move away from the charity model to the rights-based model. That’s when you will empower somebody with disability. There are a few in India doing that, and doing a brilliant job. That is the change that’s required. Don’t speak on our behalf. Let the person concerned and affected talk. Please don’t speak on our behalf. It will be the biggest dis-service you will do to us. It’s appropriating and dis-enfranchising.”

The treatment of the disabled can be highlighted with one quote from Ganatra- The biggest problem we have is not with our disability but with the stereotypes and social attitudes. It is Attitudinal Disability.

Breaking Stereotypes and Myths Through Adventure Sports

“Empathy and sports can shatter stereotypes and ignorance,” says Ganatra.

The personal passion for adventure sports and the cause of getting the concerns of disabled community in the mainstream saw Divyanshu co-create Adventures Beyond Barriers, a not-for-profit organisation which organises adventure sports events with the able-bodied and disabled community together.

The jubilant and passionate psychologist explained, ”The  principle again is empathy and the tool is sports. When we are doing adventure sports, both people with a disability as well as able-bodied persons together, it helps these two communities come together. When these two communities come together to play and have fun and engage together in what was seemingly impossible, there is a positive transformation.”

“All we want is people to come together and play. We don’t say anything else, we ask them to just participate and fully participate as equals. They have now made lasting bonds in the form of real strong friendships or even business networking, where people’s mindsets have been completely changed.” The one year of Adventure Beyond Barriers has produced a shattering of stereotypes where the able-bodied have confessed that they had never met people with disabilities before, or even imagined that they could use computers, work in big positions, be educated and literate and most of all, even beat them in sports.

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Image Source: Facebook

“We have participated in about 8 marathons by now across Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. We call out for volunteers, professional marathon runners to participate with the blind runners, who have been doing it for 5-6 years. They call us and ask how slow they will need to run.” Divyanshu and his team choose to turn the question on its head and ask how fast they could run.

“They said 10 km in 1 hour 15 minutes.I ask them if that is their personal best and they say it’s about 1 hour 10 minutes. I have to inform them that they don’t qualify as our runners are doing it in 45 minutes. Most of our runners finish it within 60 minutes.” The reaction of the professional runners is of complete surprise and disbelief as Divyanshu has to ask them to work harder.

“They don’t have running shoes or nutrition but they are doing it under 60 minutes. The professional runners with their carb-loading, fancy shoes and gadgets get their personal best running along with blind runners and often it’s the person with disability helping the able-bodied person.” 

The breaking of stereotypes and changing of mindsets not only helps the able-bodied to have a better understanding of the life of disabled individuals, but the engagement in sports helps the disabled get a new sense of identity which is not tied in with their disability. “Till now, they were just blind Raju or blind Sana, but now, they go back as Raju the mountaineer, or Sana, who runs marathons.”

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“Treat me like you would treat everybody else.” 

When asked about what more could be done to help the disabled population, Divyanshu reiterates the importance of education and equal access as well as the adoption of a rights-based model. “We need equal opportunities and equal participation in all fields – sports, education, leisure and work. When you have equal access, you have millions of people with disability coming out and engaging with the mainstream. That is when you start realising and removing barriers.”

A message which Divyanshu would like to give to any person facing disability in India is to accept no limits, and to face the challenges and struggles. “If it’s worth having, it’s worth dying for,”  he insists. He also had a sound message for people who have a loved one or friend with disability in their lives.

Treat me like you would treat everybody else. I don’t think there is any person with disability who has a problem talking about it, if it’s an honest, genuine question. It’s an opportunity for me to share to create awareness and educate you. How else would you know?” He aims to remove the fear and awkwardness in people’s interactions with him or any disabled individual. “If you come to me and get to know me, and want to say, “Hey, you want to go for a walk? Would you like me to hold your hand? Would you like to hold my hand? ” It’s okay to ask. If you really want to know about my life and disability, ask!”

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Ganatra does acknowledge that the time he went blind was a tough one, with many people who were his friends leaving and being replaced by new ones. But he is very happy with the way people in his life treat him now – as an absolute equal. “My blindness doesn’t come in the picture at all. I don’t think they remember I am blind sometimes, because they have often left me on the train and left. They realise halfway that they have left me!” laughs Divyanshu freely, with a hint of pure fulfilment with his life.

The routine reportage of disabled individuals often takes a patronising view of their lives with stress on their achievements despite ‘limitations’, further propagating stereotypes . We hope along with Divyanshu, that a day comes where reporting on the issues of disability is done with abject equality and objectivity sans any stereotyping. For now, all we can say is this:

Divyanshu Ganatra- Psychologist. Entrepreneur. Para-glider. Mountaineer. IT Expert. Literary Geek. Passionate Soul. Also, Blind.

Words: Devang Pathak

Images Provided by Divyanshu Ganatra

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