Disability is officially measured in percentages. The higher the percentage the greater your challenge is supposed to be. Kajal Mishra (24) from Delhi has a barely noticeable physical disability but what she has endured because of it cannot be expressed in numbers.
An injury in infancy impacted one of her legs and despite surgery it remained shorter than the other leg. In a better-off and more welcoming family this would have been a negligible handicap but Kajal’s circumstances were not so favourable. “I found it tough to deal with my parents’ taunts. I was blamed for all the misfortunes of the family, and being a girl made things worse,” she says. Her father used to slap her around. Her mother disregarded her interest in studies and pushed her to learn domestic skills that would help her find a husband.
“I never felt at home in my own house,” says Kajal, who would find excuses to be outdoors as often as possible. During school holidays she would escape to the library. Although she had four younger siblings she spent her days in relative solitude. She couldn’t run and play with the other kids, and her disability became the butt of their teasing. Her uneven legs meant that learning to cycle was ruled out, as was wearing high heels. But she didn’t allow these thwarted desires to bother her for long. She focussed on her studies and became involved in theatre.
When she reached ninth standard Kajal shifted to a government school. By then she had heard success stories of people with disability and she decided to take a leaf out of their book. She found that disabled pupils in her school were excluded from cultural activities, so she created a group that would support and work with them. She convinced the school authorities to hire a special educator. This radically changed her life as well as the lives of other pupils with special needs. Even today she reaches out to that special educator when she’s downhearted or needs advice.
Kajal is grateful to her teachers and mentors who boosted her confidence and egged her on. She graduated with Honours in Hindi from Jesus & Mary College. In 2018 she experienced anxiety and depression when her mother died. She was pressured to get married although she wanted to study further. Unable to put up with physical abuse any longer, in July 2019 she left home.
Shakti Shalini, an NGO that supports survivors of gender and sexual violence, took her in and she stayed at their shelter throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the situation eased she rented a small house. Reflecting on her journey she says, “Taking that first step was the most difficult, but today I am very happy as I have finally found freedom.” She urges all others in her situation to do the same.
Today she works for Karm Marg, a home for children that provides them a safe refuge, a family-like atmosphere, and opportunities for education, skill development and employment. She manages education projects for the 6-18-year-olds. Working with them, she is able to relive her lost teenage years. “I can relate to them since they too are trying to get ahead without their family’s support,” she says. “It is tough to fend for myself but I am enjoying challenging myself every day.”
Kajal hopes to become a special educator after completing her Masters in Social Work and aims to work for an NGO that supports people with disability. She wants to influence parents who look upon their disabled children as a burden, and change society’s perception of the disabled. “Instead of showing sympathy, people should focus on their strengths and encourage them,” she says.
During her stay in the Shakti Shalini shelter, Kajal was introduced to Pandies’ Theatre run by Sanjay Kumar. She continues to do theatre on Sunday and has written and acted in three plays based on her personal experiences. She is currently writing a play themed on the LGBTQ+ community.
Besides theatre her hobbies are dancing and listening to Punjabi music. She also enjoys travelling solo and has taken trips to Nainital and Alwar. “Today, I am what I am because of my disability,” she says. “The challenges of my life have taught me a lot and have made me a confident person who can speak her mind.”