By Puneet Singh Singhal
My life story is one of resilience, of overcoming poverty, domestic violence, and discrimination, to become an established disability activist and founder of ssstart.org. It’s a journey that has been as challenging as it has been rewarding, one that has shaped my understanding of the world and my place in it.
Advocacy is thrilling, satisfying, and greatly empowering, especially for me as a person with a disability. However, it can also be draining and frustrating at times. We, as a disability community, are not only politically under-represented but also under-developed and underpowered as well.
I see four main challenges so far:
1) People see us as complainers, negative, and bitter beings.
Often, we are considered to be obsessed with self-pity. It acts as a resistance for many people with disabilities to ask for their rights without being apologetic. We need to form a cooperative network of activists who identify themselves as part of a large community while actively participating in common goals and aspirations.
2) Disability is Diverse.
There are many vastly different disability issues, all equally important, but some are covered and talked about more than others. From ramps to sign language and employment opportunities to healthcare. There is a wide range of issues to think about, which makes it difficult to prioritize. This then causes millions of people with disabilities to feel ignored or sidelined.
3) Hierarchy within the Disability Community.
The communities and organizations are committed to full inclusion. However, on ground ideals, we are struggling to live up to these ideals. For example, the divide between physical disabilities and mental or cognitive disabilities is pretty evident. Moreover: race, gender, sexuality, education, wealth and other identities also play a huge role in generating strong division among disability communities.
4) Accessibility or disability issues are not sufficiently discussed and debated.
In India, I have never come across any political party or candidate saying anything about how inaccessible our buildings, education system, transportation, and healthcare facilities are. There needs to be more conversation around these issues in order for there to be action, and this applies to all countries to a greater or lesser degree.
Talking about my early years, I grew up in Sangam Vihar, a sprawling unauthorized slum colony in New Delhi where I experienced poverty on a level that few can imagine. Basic necessities such as clean drinking water and access to toilets were considered luxuries. My family lived in a constant state of precarity, struggling to make ends meet.
But it was the violence that I witnessed as a child that left the deepest scars. I felt wounded and numb, trapped in a cycle of fear and helplessness. In response, I retreated into myself, finding solace in darkness and silence.
It was at school that I first experienced the cruelty of others. My stammer, an undiagnosed learning disability, made me a target for bullies who mocked and taunted me at every opportunity. My confidence shattered, I struggled to find my voice, to express myself in a world that seemed determined to silence me.
But it was through these struggles that I discovered my calling. I founded ssstart.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to normalizing speech and communication disabilities, primarily stammering. Through my work, I have become a strong ally of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ community, advocating for a more inclusive and accessible society for all.
My approach as an activist is imaginative, articulated, and passionate. True change comes from within, and we must first challenge our own biases and assumptions before we can create a more just and equitable world. I believe that we are only experts in our own experience. That’s why I strive to listen to those with lived experiences that differ from my own, to incorporate their perspectives into my work and to work collaboratively towards a shared vision.
My goal is to create a world that is truly inclusive, where everyone, regardless of their abilities or background, has equal access and opportunities. I’m passionate about building bridges between different communities and working to bring people together in a spirit of unity and understanding. I am proud to be a part of Billion Strong, an identity and empowerment organization designed to bring the billions of voices of persons with disabilities together. We are a global community of persons with lived experiences of disabilities that will also celebrate our allies and accomplices.
I hope that stories like mine inspire you to advocate for inclusivity and diversity in your community and make a positive difference in the world.
About the Author:
Puneet Singh Singhal is a passionate social changemaker who aims to revolutionize Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) initiatives worldwide. His unique background, shaped by poverty, domestic violence, stammering, and an undiagnosed learning disability, fuels his desire to champion marginalized individuals’ rights and create balanced representation.