“The minute I started seeing less, I think I saw more”

July 2018
Nidhi during her talk.
Nidhi Goyal hosted a talk recently at Sightsavers’ offices.

“I was 15 when I acquired an eye disorder, and was told I would progressively lose sight. But I knew I needed to change the environment and make it into an enabling environment for women like me.”

Nidhi Goyal is a blind feminist from India who works on disability rights and gender equality. Her work focuses on raising awareness of the intersection of the disability rights movement and the women’s movement, and she also performs stand-up comedy. Sightsavers recently welcomed Nidhi to give a talk to staff as part of our lunchtime inclusion seminars.

“The minute I started seeing less, I think I saw more,” she explained. “I could see that there were barriers – an insensitive attitude – and a lot needed to be changed.”

During the talk, we learned how Nidhi has been challenging stereotypes: she talked about the invisibility of being a woman with a disability. “Invisibility in data and in policies exists even with larger organisations at the UN level,” she explained. “I’m carrying a slim white cane and I’m not so slim, but I can be rendered invisible – just by that little cane of mine.”

Slipping through the gaps

Nidhi described the positive developments that are happening for people with disabilities, particularly around access to education, and to employment and livelihoods. However, there is a gap that many disabled women are slipping through, and this is around sexuality and reproductive health rights.

We heard the story of a blind woman from South Asia who was married to a man without disabilities. On her wedding day, her father gave her some tablets, saying: ‘This is for strength: if you eat this every day, your married life will be happy.” She diligently took a tablet every day for a year, but she was illiterate and blind: she didn’t know she was taking contraceptive pills. Her father had decided she was not fit to be a mother, so he attempted to deny her the right to choose to have a family.

The comments highlighted how we have normalised the behaviours, the struggles, the harassment and discrimination of women with disabilities, and now accept it as a routine part of life. The stories were shocking but very true in many ways.

A right to education

Nidhi’s anecdotes highlighted the importance of Sightsavers’ work to support the rights of women with disabilities, particularly the right to receive an education and find meaningful employment. In India, for example, a Sightsavers programme has been offering judo and self-defence classes to women with visual impairments, giving them confidence to venture out alone. They can also pass on their skills to other women with disabilities, thus providing them with a livelihood.

Nidhi told us how she was recently travelling to Brussels when the airline staff stopped her at Mumbai Airport and refused to allow her to check in because she was travelling without an assistant. They asked her: “How will you use the toilet? How will you press the call button? You cannot travel alone because we’re not going to give you any assistance on the flight.” Yet everyone has a right to travel freely. How can it be right to prevent a blind person from travelling alone?

Nidhi ended by telling us that her stand-up comedy came about as an accident. She likes to look at life in comic terms so that when people have prejudices against her, she laughs at them in order to survive.

Sightsavers and social inclusion

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Sightsavers logoKate Bennell is the organisational inclusion coordinator at Sightsavers UK. Severely sight impaired herself, she coordinates the Social Inclusion Working Group and champions accessibility.


On reflection

“Nidhi’s talk made me rethink some of my experiences in life and resolve to see the comical elements. The strange thing about having a disability is that there are two extremes: you are either invisible, or you are extremely visible and put on a pedestal for just being out in public, and surviving.

“I too have experienced these highs and lows – you can feel like a celebrity on one day and a nobody on another. Stella Young gave a TED talk about how society has a habit of turning disabled people into ‘inspiration porn’ to inspire and motivate others, which, she says, should not be our only purpose in life. We have so much more to contribute than that.”


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