“I have lived two lives,” he says. “The first 30 years of my life when I could see, and the last 30 as a blind man. But it’s OK, it happens. Many people are blind from birth. I could, at least, see for 30 years.”
He lost his sight in 1984 after someone threw acid into his face – an act so barbaric and dehumanising that it’s hard to imagine how he’s coped. Following the attack, Sankarlal found things difficult. Moving around was hard, and his disability and appearance meant he was ashamed to leave the house. He used to tend buffalo, whose milk he would sell to a cooperative dairy, but had to give this up. His son, Hansraj, supported the family by running a rented shop.
Times were tough until the family received support from a government self-employment scheme for people with disabilities. This enabled them to open a shop in their home, which today the whole family helps to run: Sankarlal, his wife Chawlidevi, Hansraj and his wife, and their two children aged 10 and 12. Being able to work again, and regain his independence, has proved invaluable not only for Sankarlal’s finances, but also his confidence. “I am very happy and my time passes well,” he says.
In 2010, the Urmul Trust, a group that works towards social and economic change in the region, helped Sankarlal to obtain a disability certificate, travel pass and 5,000 Indian rupees (about £50). They explained to him his rights, told him about schemes that were available, and – crucially – helped him to access benefits he was entitled to. He now has the means to get out and about regularly on his own.
With this new-found mobility and confidence, Sankarlal became active in his local disabled people’s organisation (DPO), going as far as becoming a spokesperson. People with disabilities often feel too embarrassed to leave their homes and engage with the community, so the DPO encourages them to start to do things for themselves. One key area Sankarlal has worked hard on is convincing financial institutions to allow people with disabilities to access loans more easily, a vital move that enhances their ability to earn a living and provide for their families.