Who is Handicapped Anyway

Dr Usha Sundaram (Dharma Keerthi), Bangalore

(In this Year of the Handicapped, a psychiatrist attached to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, Bangalore, presents a concept based on liberating the mentally and emotionally handicapped from the thraldom of their suffering through karma yoga.)

Not so very long ago, a patient of mine came to me after an unsuccessful interview for a job with a tailoring firm and said she had been turned down. I asked her if she had been given any reason. She said, yes, they had said, 'You have had mental illness and we do not employ the mentally handicapped.' I asked her how they had known she had been mentally ill. She had told them so herself because they had asked why she had been seen entering the mental health clinic. 'I do not want to make a mystery of it,' she said, 'I was ill and I am well now. People do not hide the fact that they have had typhoid. If I do not get a job because of this, then it's no loss to me. It's his loss.'

This set me thinking. Twelve years ago Kamala was married to a hotel worker. After her first delivery a year later she became depressed. She would stare into space and hear voices. Tossing in bed, sleepless the whole night, she had visions of gods and goddesses, her dead relatives and fearful animals. In a month's time she was lost to her family. She had entered into a world of fearful shadows and silences. She tried sharing this with her mother, who only wept in response. Relatives looked at her oddly. She went to her family doctor. 'Don't worry. It will be alright,' he said. But it wasn't. She was alone with her fears.

Finally she was taken screaming to a hospital and put on major tranquilizers. In a few days she had gotten rid of her visions and voices, but she was a cabbage; she had no initiative. Her mother, a widow with some guilt, moved into the house to look after her and the home. Kamala was protected from any social contact. Continuously on drugs for eight years, she sat at home, with no interest, in anything except her own inner world.

First step towards freedom

When Kamala did come to me, we reviewed the medication and asked her to start working at home. This brought an amazed look on her mother's face. 'But,' she said, 'She is ill, she can't work.' 'She looks healthy to me,' I said. 'No, she used to hear voices,' said the mother in a hushed voice, darting a glance at the other patients working unperturbed at an agarbatti packing section. 'That's alright,' I said, 'She doesn't hear them any more, and even if she did, she can still use her hands and feet.' The mother looked shocked and said, 'But she is ill.' Then one of our other patients turned around and said, 'Who isn't? And so what!' Another patient who worked with us explained to the mother: 'I was also ill once but working has helped me take my mind off my worries. I feel happy working here with the others.'

So, the mother pushed Kamala towards me and said, 'Alright, let her come here and work with you. If anything happens, you will be around.' I asked Kamala if she would come. She looked around at the radiant happiness on the faces of the others and she nodded. This was her first step towards freedom, towards breaking the limits which society and she herself had imposed on the concept of a mentally ill person.


In the beginning she came and sat silent and immovable for hours, day after day, unless someone put a packet of agarbatti into her hands, which she would fold with great reluctance. In a month's time she had begun to work slowly. Perhaps the atmosphere caught up with her. After three months of this, she said, 'I do not like packing agarbattis. The smell worries me.'

'What would you like to do?' I asked, realizing that for the first time she had the courage to bring me her inadequate self. 'I might try tailoring,' she said.

'Go ahead,' I said. Slowly, laboriously she started putting together bits of cloth to make a patterned whole. Slowly she gathered bits of herself she had rejected- her dissatisfaction with her husband's income, her baby that was a girl not a boy, her inability to revolt against what seemed to her a closing up of doors. She put them together, each time weeping a little, hurting herself in the process of growing up, until one day she beamed, 'I've made a baby frock. As this is my first one, I won't sell it.' I knew she had accepted herself then.

Soon she was taking orders and stitching clothes for her neighbours; she even started a bank account. In a year she got a loan from a bank, bought a sewing machine at home and needed to come to the clinic for only one to two hours per day. It was at this time that she came to me and said she had seen a sign on a shop window asking for 'Tailors' and she wanted to apply. So she said, after the unsuccessful interview, 'If I do not get a job then it's no loss to me. It's his loss.' Just a shrug of the shoulders, an impish smile and she was gone.

The next day she was back with a vessel of idlies (steamed rice cakes). 'What is this?' I asked. 'I see people sitting in hotels and buying two idlies for almost a rupee. So I thought I could make some at home and sell five for a rupee.' She sat near the clinic and sold twelve rupees worth of idlies in two hours. The next day she was back, and the next.

False sense of fragility

Undaunted, she portrays the potential that lies dormant in every person and is never expressed for lack of a sense of adventure, sometimes too much caution born of fear, a sense of false pride, a feeling of inadequacy - ignorance of one's infinite capacity to break limits, and the generally mistaken view that a person, once ill, becomes fragile for the rest of his life. Such illnesses range from typhoid contracted twenty years ago, blood pressure, headache, indigestion, operations like tubectomy and various mental disturbances. This sense of fragility stems from ignorance.

Most people do not realize that 'taking rest' causes most instruments to rust or go out of condition. Musical instruments lose their resonance, weapons lose their sharpness and vehicles get run down batteries. And so it is with this most sophisticated instrument of the body. When a person sits idle for any reason, be it convalescence, lack of a job or not needing one, his body loses its elasticity and his mind loses its flexibility. Most aches and pains are due to lack of exercise or the wrong sort of exercise; so it is with the aches and pains of the mind.

Thinking negatively dissipates the energies of the mind. Positivity gathers them together. It often needs great courage to break out of the rut of negative perception which has swamped cultures all over the world. This negativity is so strong that people pay to take certificates saying they are ineffective without them.

Who is handicapped?

This year is the International Year of the Handicapped. Often I wonder, who is handicapped? The 'developed' countries of the world, seeped in material wealth, wage wars like children over toffee. Teachers compete with students in a struggle for power, and organizations spend millions for meetings and conferences on the handicapped which serve to reinforce their inadequacy. Perhaps it is time we got out of this situation of self-pity in being handicapped or glorying in giving charity to the capable, and started tuning our instruments to give better music before they rust.

Karma yoga is the tuning of our smaller minds into a higher consciousness by the process of work. In the beginning we do not know what this 'higher consciousness' is all about. We do, however, know that there is always some part of our body that is healthy and fit whatever else goes wrong with the rest of it. We often take this positive part of ourselves for granted. If we could awake to that, become aware of the strong parts of ourselves and use them to work - just for the fun of working and for the sense of satisfaction that comes with putting an otherwise crippled body to use, we would awake to an inner strength within ourselves. Our mental concepts of inner worthlessness would in the process be laid aside to give place to a feeling of fulfilment. This is renunciation. We renounce smaller aspects of ourselves only to gain higher ones.

This life must be made divine and this process of divinizing oneself is an endless adventure of self-discovery.

Who is handicapped anyway?