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Walking towards hope

R Sriram Srinivas, who has multiple disabilities—mental retardation and spastic diplegia—takes a breather during his yoga session at home. P Settu, his yoga therapist, who has been teaching Sriram two years now, says that Sriram used to be inattentive and restless, but now follows instructions well and has mellowed down significantly.  



Images and text by Naveen P M

Walking towards hope (2/9)

M Vanitha, Sriram's teacher, helps Sriram wear his dance apparel before the start of the 'World Differently Abled Day Cultural Programme' at Don Guanella Special School in Chennai. Due to Sriram's condition, simple tasks such as putting on clothes can become a chore and he often ends up needing some assistance. 


Walking towards hope (3/9)

Sriram rides his bicycle—fitted with a custom-made backrest—flanked by special education teacher, G V Arumugam. Arumugam has known Sriram for 15 years and was initially hired to teach him basic reading and writing skills. On Sriram's parents' request, he started to assist Sriram in walking and then taught him how to ride a bicycle so he could improve his muscle tone. 

Read Sriram's story here


Walking towards hope (4/9)

R Devi helps Sriram read a clock at Sai Sri Ram Training Centre. Sriram has difficulty reading and writing even basic words, and has a hard time grasping universal concepts such as time, date, and money. Devi is Sriram's favorite teacher. Sai Sri Ram Training Centre has eight students with special needs, two teachers, and a domestic help. The school functions from 10 am to 3 pm and keeps the students busy with a plethora of activities such as coloring, computer games, and yoga.


Walking towards hope (5/9)

M R Karthik, physical trainer, subjects Sriram to one of the many "balancing exercises" to improve his balance and correct his "scissor gait". Karthik has been training Sriram for the last two years. "In the beginning, Sriram could hardly stand for a minute on his own and displayed a lot of traits commonly seen in persons with Intellectual Disability (ID), such as lack of eye contact, droning, drooling...," says Karthik.

Read Sriram's story here


Walking towards hope (6/9)

Sriram and his classmates from Sai Sri Ram Training Centre perform to a medley of Bollywood songs at the 'World Differently Abled Day Cultural Programme' held in Don Guanella Special School, Chennai. P Dharani Kumar, a professional choreographer, composed the dance moves for this performance. He visits the school every weekend to teach dance to these students. "Sriram usually has trouble recollecting and executing my dance moves but he stepped his game up through some spontaneous moves," he said. 

Read Sriram's story here

Walking towards hope (7/9)

Sriram is ecstatic after receiving a silver medal for the Standing Long Jump event. His driver, D Alvin (right), and Sriram's mother, R Vanitha, gather around to congratulate him, at the Special Olympics Sports Meet held on YMCA Grounds, Chennai. Sriram shares a special bond with Alvin and the two can often be seen engaging in healthy banter. 


Walking towards hope (8/9)

Sriram does a lap of backstroke at The League Club, Chennai. His parents introduced him to swimming at the age of seven after a doctor suggested hydropathy as treatment. Sriram has been training under U Sathish Kumar, swim coach for children with special needs, for one year now. Sriram won four gold medals in as many events at two swim meets for para-athletes held last year in Tamil Nadu.


Walking towards hope (9/9)

Dr J Paul Devasagayam, Area Director, Special Olympics Bharat, Tamil Nadu, reviews Sriram Srinivas's progress with his mother, R Vanitha, during one of their monthly meetings at his 100-square-foot office in Purasawalkam, Chennai.


Loving yourself beyond your disability

Madhumitha Venkatrman

There are times when one looks at oneself in the mirror and wishes a different reflection back. I wish I were taller, thinner, fairer, that my hair was thicker, my eyes were bigger. This feeling is common and most of us go through it, especially in our growing years. For persons with disability, this feeling can be further compounded because of the disability. The feeling of being imperfect, the feeling of being broken and at some level not structurally fitting into the "societal definition of beauty," can limit one's confidence and one's belief in body image.

As a child with an orthopedic disability, I was brought up by parents who taught me that I was worth it, that I was awesome the way I was and I remember that I couldn't care less. It was okay if I was different, I took pride in it. But as I hit puberty, I slowly started realizing the difference. I could not participate in sports, I was gaining weight, I was shorter and I definitely did not consider myself beautiful in any way. Any compliment on my looks would be met with amusement. I felt like no one could ever like me in any way. While I was very confident in every other sphere, this image of myself lingered and perhaps still lingers on. It oscillates from caring too much to not caring at all. At one point during my teenage years, I was always on a diet, exercising and starving myself constantly. Then sudden pangs of hunger would kick in and I would give in completely. Then the weight would shoot up and I would be depressed, beating myself up for how this could happen to me. It has only been in the past few years that I have learned to tell myself that it's okay, and I am okay the way I look. I don’t think I am completely over it but it is progress nevertheless. I feel more peaceful today perhaps, definitely more confident. It has definitely been a difficult journey—the journey of accepting yourself with your flaws is never easy. The disability also adds to it in the sense that if one wishes to lose weight, it’s much harder no matter how much one works. And one wonders whether one wants to go through this pain. Who am I making a point to anyways?

The problem with having a negative body image is one ceases to notice the beauty that is there. The negativity, I believe, overtakes the positive. A person with disability may have to constantly tell themselves to look at their positive aspects (as far as looks are concerned), the reinforcement needs to be higher and that can make one feel lost. The way beauty and disability are portrayed in the media further adds to this issue—there are very few actors who are persons with disability, and the concepts of beauty and disability very rarely come together. Further adding the intersectionality of gender—if you are a woman with a disability, given women in general are more exposed to societal standards of an ideal body, this issue gets aggravated further. There is a link to to sexuality as well, given people with disability are largely believed to be asexual beings; their exploration of their own body and that of others could be very limited. This creates the image of the body to be something which only provides functionality, not meant to be enjoyed or lived with.  

In case of an acquired disability, one experiences a sudden feeling of loss and that can lead to a big dip in feeling body positive. The period around which a person acquires the disability is therefore critical—one must go through the grieving process completely for it to lead to acceptance and being okay.  

Very often, compliments given to persons with disability with respect to their body have a "compensatory" effect. "So what if your hands are not functional, you have a wonderful smile". This can further bring down confidence and make one feel the pain of being disabled.

There are often questions around body image for the visually impaired: do they feel it, do they know it at all. One must understand that body image is not just the visual physical self. Body image is multifaceted: how each of each of the senses feels the image – tactile, audio, kinesthetic among others. It's a combination of these which help us realize our body image.

While it is definitely more difficult for persons with disability to develop a positive body image, it certainly is possible. The key essence lies in the support system that surrounds the individual. Family and friends should reinforce (without the sympathy and patronizing which one often witnesses) that the person is beautiful as they are. Concepts such as sexuality could be mandated for children with disability; often, them not being educated on these subjects unlike able bodied children indicates that the society does not believe that they will have an active sexual life, have a partner and this can further reinforce negative body images. Finally, the onus of taking pride in what one is, ofcourse rests with a person with disability but a few of these things do help. But what concrete steps can one take to move towards a positive body image? Mumbai-based psychologist Shreya Sridharan-Mhatre explains body image issues and gives us some pointers on how to we can start a journey towards body posititivity in this piece. 

Madhumitha Venkatrman is a human resources professional, and a diversity and inclusion evangelist. 

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