How my work on Accessibility (A11Y) was shaped by a life-changing experience

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Celebrating Accessibility on International Day of Persons With Disabilities.

A year ago, on a visit to India, I went to see my friends at the St Agnes Special School in Mangalore, a school for children with special needs. I recalled during this visit that as a 20-year-old, new college grad, I had signed up (in 1999) for a program they had just started to earn a Diploma in Special Ed. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting into. I just wanted to do something meaningful. I was upset that my parents cared more about getting me married off rather than allowing me to pursue my dreams. I wanted to pursue an MBA, move to the big city, and fly away from the protective nest.

My parents weren’t having any of it and the stubborn young lady that I was (and still am..stubborn, yes. Young, not quite) I refused to sit around waiting for prince charming to show up. While they were busy searching for a suitable boy for me, I decided to throw myself into learning something new. I loved working with children, always aspired to be a teacher, and was excited about starting this new program. I was not prepared for what came next.

A life-changing experience.

Description of the image below: A picture of Gayatri with the children from the St Agnes Special School, Mangalore during a visit in December 2019.

A picture of Gayatri with the children from the St Agnes Special School, Mangalore during a visit in December 2019.

When I started the program, all I wanted to do was to ‘fix the kids’. I wanted to find a way to make them “normal” so society would accept them. I would go home crying every day. My mom suggested I quit the program. I couldn’t bear to see how these children were treated in their homes, often neglected and misunderstood. They loved coming to school because it was a safe and fun place for them to be. I went back every day because something kept pulling me in. I felt a calling to view this experience with a fresh perspective.

In a few months, I realized that the only person that needed fixing was me. I realized how perfect these children were, they were truly happy with who they were, they didn’t care what anyone thought of them, they only needed me to understand how they navigate a world that ignores them, marginalizes them, and misunderstands them. I was the one needing fixing because of my misinformed belief systems. When I was able to address that, I became an effective educator, one that was able to meet them where they are and help them with the skills they needed to navigate the world.

Meeting Dhanraj.

I learned a great deal in that one year than I have in four decades of my life. In 2019, I reconnected with one of my students, Dhanraj. Dhanraj was a ten-year-old boy when I first met him. He would always have a runny nose and drool continuously. I knew something was off. He was smart and intuitive but he wasn’t able to do certain things because something got in the way.

I offered to pay for him to see a doctor and we found out that he had severe untreated tonsillitis that needed to be addressed immediately. I helped raise money for his tonsilitis surgery because his dad, a rickshaw driver couldn’t afford it. I called on my Dad, our friends, my uncles, and aunts to raise the money needed for the surgery. The wonderful surgeon slashed his fees when he found out we were raising money for the surgery. It was truly amazing how it all came about.

I would bring Dhanraj fruits during my visits to the hospital post-recovery. It gave me immense satisfaction to know that a small observation I had made had helped a kid get a fair shot at life. I got married the following year and moved to the US. I lost touch with Dhanraj but his dad would give my mom updates about his progress. His dad recalled how the surgery was life-changing for Dhanraj as he went on to earn medals at the Special Olympics a few years later. He won many gold medals for India and became a roller-skating champion!

Description of image below. Dhanraj wins gold at the Special Olympics in Beijing, China. His arm is in a cast as he injured it in the process of winning gold!

Dhanraj wins gold at the Special Olympics in Beijing, China. His arm is in a cast as he injured it in the process of winning gold!

During my 2019 visit to India, I got a chance to see him in person. 20 years later, he stood before me, so tall, sporting a mustache. Still the same smile I saw on that 10-year-old boy years ago. He wanted to take me to his office. He worked at a tech company as an office boy. As he walked me through the hallways, I saw how people greeted him, his manager was practically gushing about what a star employee he is. I cried happy tears the whole time I was there. I couldn’t stop crying. I think Dhanraj was a little embarrassed by me.

I gave him a hug as I left asking him to promise me that he will invite me to his wedding. He promised he would.

Description of the image below: Gayatri standing with her former student, Dhanraj, with his manager, and his sister at the office where he works today in Mangalore.

Gayatri standing with her former student, Dhanraj, with his manager, and his sister at the office where he works today in Mangalore.

Paying tribute on International Persons with Disabilities day.

On this International Day of Persons With Disabilities, I recall this experience with deep gratitude. It took about 20 years to come full circle but I did. On Mother’s day this year, I founded The Accidental Ally, a company that is dedicated to helping product teams become allies for people with disabilities, to help product teams appreciate the beauty of accessibility, and to help them adapt accessibility into their design and development process. I became an ally by accident but I aspire to create many many more allies for people like Dhanraj. If each one of us became an ally and helped even one person, that is IMPACT!

On this day, know that people with disabilities don’t need fixing. What needs to be fixed is the way we view differently-abled people, the way we approach & engage people who are different from us, and the blatant lack of empathy and compassion in the world we live in.

Let’s make that shift today!

Read our stories, The Accidental Ally, https://theaccidentalally.com/