Miles to Go

Disabled rights activist ARMAN ALI is denied the right to participate in IIT Guwahati Half Marathon, defeating the whole idea of inclusion. Ali writes about his experience

I learnt about the Guwahati Half Marathon through a friend and was very excited about the idea of participating. The theme “Run for a Better Tomorrow” inspired more interest and I saw it as an opportunity to be part of a process / movement. This appeared to be an initiative which was based on a principle which is close to my heart – inclusion. The half-marathon was to be flagged off by filmmaker Rakyesh Om Prakash Mehra.

I registered myself for the IIT Guwahati Half Marathon on August 20 through a friend who is associated with IIT-G and also personally spoke to the person who was registering participants for the marathon. I gave all my details as sought by the man and specifically told him that I am a person with disability and a wheelchair-user and that I would take part in the marathon on my wheelchair as happens worldwide and also in the Mumbai and Delhi marathons.

I chose the “Spirit” Run: 6 KM General Run as this category was open to ‘All’ and had NO AGE RESTRICTIONS whatsoever! I was quite happy to see this message on the IIT half marathon website since disability often goes hand in hand with old age. I did not ask for any assistance or any special arrangements for my participation in the marathon.

Immediately after I registered my friend at IIT called me and said that the organisers were very excited about my participation and asked me if I could help get more wheelchair-users to participate. I said I would find out since I did not know of any other wheelchair-user who could participate at such short notice. I was also informed that one of the organisers wished to talk to me to understand my condition and ensure my effective participation in the marathon.

I called the organiser the day before the marathon only to find that my participation in the marathon had been declined because of my disability. I was informed that the organisers did not know how to handle (one) wheelchair user. He went on to tell me that the authorities could create problems if I participated and that the media would criticise them if anything went wrong. I tried to persuade the gentleman and gave him examples of other marathons where disabled people also participate. He then told me that since they did not have a separate lane for wheelchair-users and that they had only half the road and they would not be able to accommodate or allow me to participate in the race.

I then spoke to someone senior in IIT-G and he also said that he was disappointed to hear that my participation had been declined and that he would find out about the issue and get back to me. I then informed my friend in IIT-G that my participation has been declined. He was very disappointed and said he would speak to the organisers and let me know. A few minutes later he called to inform me that the organisers agreed to a “symbolic” participation which meant that I could be there at the start line and get off after 1/2 a kilometre or so.

I however found the whole idea of “symbolic” participation a pitiful gesture and more of a photo opportunity which would make the event look picture perfect. For me it defeated the whole idea of “inclusion” and “open for all” run for a better tomorrow. Inclusion of disabled people remains a distant dream for disabled people in our country and the idea of a better tomorrow certainly does not include the disabled.

Each time we discriminate against any person with disability by not giving him/her an equal opportunity in society on an equal basis with others, we discriminate against an entire generation. I would like to mention here that Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries where over 81% of the population lives below the poverty line. But even in Burundi there are initiatives for equal rights and opportunity for disabled people. For example, even there, the new parliament building which is being built is barrier free for disabled people. If even a country like Burundi is taking a step forward in the right path, where is the disconnect for us?

Guwahati is one of the fast developing cities in the world today, but is this growth meant for people from all sections of the society? Do we have the right vision for growth and progress? What happened to me in the marathon was not a stray incident for persons with disabilities. We face discrimination in every walk of life. I ponder on whether we are running or crawling towards a “better tomorrow”? The point I am trying to make is that one only needs to have the will. . . and the rest will follow. The only disability in life is a bad attitude and to be truly inclusive we need to have the right approach and embrace diversity for a better tomorrow for all.

Arman Ali

Arman Ali

Arman Ali, 32, is currently Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi, Centre for Rehabilitation and Training for Multiple Disability, a not-for-profit organization which has been working in the area of disability in Northeast India since 1987. A well-known and committed disability activist, Ali is also Member, Child Welfare Committee, Kamrup (Metro), Assam, Chairperson of the Zonal Coordination Committee, Northeast, Rehabilitation Council of India, a statutory body under the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Member of the Board of Directors, ARUNIM (Association for Rehabilitation under National Trust Initiative of Marketing), Executive Member, National Handicapped Finance Development Corporation (NHFDC), and Executive Council Member, Asom Sarba Siksha Abhiyan. Ali holds the merit of winning the National Award in Public Recognition for Outstanding Performance as Most Efficient Disabled Employee for the Year 1998 from then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. He was also awarded twice by Infosys for delivering operational excellence – the Infosys Excellence Award for Inclusivity and Diversity from Infosys for the year 2007 and the Ramp Award for Exit Counselling for the year 2008. Ali is also recipient of Outstanding Individual Award 2007 constituted by Atma Nirbhar – Ek Challenge, a civil society organization based in Northeast India and Super Idol Award from CNN IBN 7 for his work in the disability sector.