Mental Health Warriors: When ‘Disability’ Is A Life Sentence

What happens when a differently-abled person has a mental illness? Often the answer is it goes untreated with long, silent suffering— with little or no hope in sight.

Sweta Mantrii, 31, has spina bifida by birth and walks with the help of a caliper and crutches. This Pune-based writer is a disability rights activist. She’s currently having a gala time as she attempts to address the understanding of disability and the disability of understanding through standup comedy.

No flowery introduction. No grand opening lines. I’ll cut to the chase and come straight to the point. There is more to disability than the physical aspect of it. What happens when a person is living with a disability that affects their mobility? Have you ever thought beyond the physical challenges that come with a disability?

I’ve been differently-abled since birth. If you saw me growing up, you’d say that I was having a pretty happy and ‘normal’ childhood. I was a pampered child and got what I wanted, as my parents tried to compensate for something that was missing – the ability to walk ‘normally’. They enrolled me in a school for ‘normal’ children, they took me to family gatherings, to parks, movies etc. They did their best to ensure that I didn’t feel left out. I didn’t. I had a few friends. But despite everything, I grew up being labeled as the child who was not ‘normal’ and hence was treated differently.

I used to be the enthu cutlet in school who would want to join the other kids during the PT sessions on the ground but was given the option of staying back in class. Because of the attitude of a few near and dear ones, I was eventually conditioned into believing that marriage isn’t for me and I spent most of my life believing that men would never like me. When I wanted to take up a job in a different city after my MBA, I was told to give it up and even consider working from home. In the recent past, someone even went on to point out that it is unfortunate that my parents would never know what it feels to have their daughter make chai for them every morning! (I make better chai than my mom, by the way). Yes, when you’re a woman living with a disability, you have to battle the double-edged sword of ableism and patriarchy.

When you’re a person living with a disability, you not only deal with the limitations of your own body and limitations of the infrastructure, but you also deal with the limitations of other people’s attitude. It impacts you in ways that you don’t realise immediately. Living with a disability leaves you with immense self-doubt, less or almost no confidence, and in a bad mental space. You’re always made to feel that you just aren’t good enough. It triggers a chain of psychological reactions that you can’t articulate. This is where I feel therapy can play a crucial role in helping the person cope with it. But how does a person with a mobility-affecting-disability access therapy?

I took therapy for the first time in 2016. I walk with crutches, so I have learned to navigate my way through the inaccessible infrastructure; not to forget that an inaccessible infrastructure is a reflection of the indifferent attitude of the society. Choosing a therapist didn’t depend on their rating on any website, but on how accessible space was. However, the slippery surfaces and steps without railings made it even tougher in the monsoons, and I had to discontinue therapy. After going through another tough phase in my life, I resumed therapy again this year and could continue it for a good four months only because it was ‘online’ therapy and I didn’t have to worry about getting anywhere without tripping.

I am so grateful to my therapist and care manager at Mind Piper who helped me understand the larger narrative of my life and disentangle my emotional mess. It’s heartening to see more social enterprises offering people-centric online mental health services. If not for online therapy, I would have been stuck in the same space. I can’t even begin to imagine how someone on a wheelchair or a visual impairment can think of availing therapy with the given infrastructure!

You’d think that people with disabilities are strong. Yes, we’re strong because we have the ability to live in a world that’s not designed for us. But sometimes, strong people could do with some empathy now and then. Could we take baby steps towards having a barrier-free and inclusive environment? Not going to therapy, could not only lead to having a drastic impact on the person with mental illness but also on those around them. It could also result in passing on toxic behaviour to the next generation.

If hospitals can be accessible (not all of them are), then why can’t spaces of mental health? Can we stop glorifying differently-abled people as objects of inspiration and take efforts to be inclusive? We’re not asking for a favour; accessibility is our right. We deserve it.

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