When I was relatively younger, in school for example, I would always try to distance myself from activities that were connected with having a disability – making friends who had disabilities for instance, or working on issues of universal design. As a law student I never wanted to be a disability rights lawyer, not exclusively or principally at any rate.
The main reason why I have always felt this way is simple: why should I be invested in making these issues a central feature of my life only because I have a disability? In addition, I have always been conscious about making sure that I am not considered the archetypal disabled person – the one who is presumed to be deeply invested in disability rights issues, the way women are expected to be feminists. In other words, while I did not have the vocabulary to articulate the matter in these terms when my views on this issue began taking shape, I have never wanted to be essentialised. Also, while I know how this makes me sound, I used to think of myself as being ‘cooler’ than the average disabled person who likes talking about their disability all the time.
In recent years however, as I have learned how to embrace my disability, or at least to live with it with a reasonable amount of peace, I have often not had a choice in this matter. Having to confront barriers to accessibility on an everyday basis compels you to develop a view on how you’d like to tackle these issues. And even not doing anything about them is a view. I have also come to realise that those of us who are able to acquire some influence, howsoever insignificant in the larger scheme of things, have to do our bit to utilize that influence to make things a little better, not just for ourselves, but for other disabled people.
When I became a Rhodes Scholar, I knew I wanted to actively talk about what it means to be one, as a person with a disability. Not to conceal that part of my identity or pretend that it is a trivial part of who I am. To help move the needle through mainstreaming the need for meaningful inclusion and accessibility. Not just for my own benefit, but also because the Rhodes Scholars of today, I believe, will choose the Rhodes Scholars, employees and leaders of tomorrow. Some might say that reflects a somewhat exaggerated view of the influence of a Rhodes Scholarship, but that is a debate for another day. For now it would suffice, I think, to say that if we’re talking about communities of young high achievers who are ambitious and well-equipped to pursue their dreams, this community has to be right up there.
For the last few months, therefore, I worked on putting together a workshop to help the Rhodes community question their assumptions and shed their inhibitions about engaging with Scholars with disabilities. I am conscious of the fact that many would dispute the utility of a workshop like this. Those who are willing to attend such a workshop, they believe, don’t really need to be told all this. And those who do need to be told all this are never going to spend their time and energy on attending a workshop like this. Plus, there is also some truth to the claim that it is easy for people to wax eloquent about being inclusive in a workshop on scholars with disabilities. How they actually react to concrete situations involving disabled people – when the rubber meets the road – is an entirely different matter.
I was keen to help organize this workshop not because I am unaware of these views or because I don’t think they are valid, but it was because, cheesy and utopian as this sounds, I think proceeding on a presumption of hope is a much better idea than proceeding on a presumption of cynicism or despair. And by hope, I do not mean, as President Obama often says, the blind optimism that does not recognize the enormity of the challenges that face us. But the kind which recognizes them and yet is based on the belief that there is value to be gained by doing your best in addressing the challenges that you see around you.
At the workshop, I spoke about the challenges that I have faced as a Rhodes Scholar with a disability in terms of being fully included. Some might wonder, why do you have to ‘broadcast’ your challenges to the world like that? Not because I want people to sympathize with my situation, but in the hope that something constructive and valuable can come out of people being exposed to my perspective.
I spoke about how I have, in so many ways, felt more included here than ever before, and I truly have. I also recognize the internal contradiction there. But I think the contradiction only shows us that, just as I have felt fully included when others around me have been willing to counteract the impact of my disability, I could feel more included even in the ways in which I currently don’t if people were a little more sensitive to my concerns and willing to go the extra mile every once in a while. Just as I would do for others on other issues. I truly do feel that people were receptive to what I had to say. Not just when I said that they’re doing a great job, but also when I told them how, in my view, they could be doing a little more. And it is on days like these that you feel that you have, to an extent, been able to rise above the fear of inadequacy, of not being good enough, of not fitting in which a place like Oxford can make you experience more times than you’d like.
Rahul Bajaj (India & Linacre 2018) is a first-year student studying Law at Oxford University. Rahul has his own blog titled 'Is It Just Me Or.... The Chronicles of an Oxford student and Rhodes Scholar' which you can read here.