Ridahun Khriam (34) from Shillong, Meghalaya lost both her parents when she was a small child. She barely remembers her father and thinks she was perhaps five years old when her mother too passed away. Since she comes from a matrilineal community her mother’s eldest sister Tharsila Khriam and her daughter Queen Mary Khriam took care of her. After Tharsila died in 2016, Queen Mary, who is unmarried, became a mother to her.
Ridahun recalls her aunt telling her she was born at home and had no disability at birth. She thinks it possible that her left knee was injured after a fall. She remembers being taken to various doctors, and having to lie flat with bamboo stalks tied to her leg as part of treatment. Saint Peter School in Madanrting doesn’t bring back happy memories for her. Since it was difficult to walk carrying a heavy schoolbag, and paying Rs 10 each way every day for a public vehicle was not feasible, her relatives usually conveyed her to and fro. She says her schoolmates mocked her and imitated her gait. During the PT period although she yearned to join in the games she was made to sit in a corner. She often cried from sheer loneliness.
In eighth standard she shifted to Holy Child School but here too she faced the same challenges. Feeling like a fish out of water, she dropped out. Fortunately, help was literally around the corner, walking distance away at Roilang Livelihood Academy. This is a unit of Bethany Society which creates opportunities for persons with disabilities and the rural poor.
Bethany Society gave Ridahun her first taste of what it means to be embraced for who you are. It also gave her skills to earn a livelihood. At Roilang she learnt English and Math in the morning and received vocational training in the afternoon in weaving cane. Deciding to get back in touch with academics, she sat for her tenth standard exam through the National Institute of Open Schooling and passed in first division (her subjects were English, Computers, Home Science, Social Science and Economics). Next she did a six-month barefoot technician’s course for hearing aids; it rendered her eligible to go to villages and identify people with hearing loss through simple tests without the use of technology. She then took a three-month Sign Language course at Ferrando Speech and Hearing Centre and passed the exam.
Around 10 years ago Ridahun travelled abroad for the first time – to Geneva. She and three other persons with disabilities accompanied Steve Dom Rocha, founder-director of Pratyek and convener of the NINEISMINE campaign for child rights. “One of my good memories is when I went shopping,” she says. “I didn’t realise how very accessible everything was – the roads, the shops.” The topic under discussion was on quality education and access to health care in India’s north-eastern states. Ridahun was a Sign interpreter for a team member and also gave her own testimony. “And I got a chance to show my cultural dance,” she recalls. (She subsequently travelled to New York with a 16-member NINEISMINE team.)
Ridahun is now firmly entrenched in the disability space. A trophy on her bedroom shelf reveals that she was second runner up in an inclusive race. Shillong habitually organises inclusive marathons on Independence Day and Republic Day and Ridahun raced in a wheelchair. In 2013 she was donated a disability scooter for work and personal use. At Bethany Society she works on inclusive development and is a Sign interpreter as well. However, her target is to be a professional interpreter for which she would have to complete a course certified by the Rehabilitation Council of India. Meanwhile, her academic goals have expanded: she is doing her Masters in Sociology through the open university IGNOU.
Many people have asked Ridahun, why don’t you get surgery done for your leg? Her reply: “As long as I am able to walk, I will walk.” After all, she is financially independent, supporting her family, and helping others in the disability community. What more could she wish for to make her happy?