In the second of the interview series, ‘Wisdom from the Young and the Disabled’, we are in conversation with Sanket Gala. As we bear witness to the rich know-hows from young people with disabilities of how the world should be, we hold on to the words and intentions of writer and community organizer for disability justice, Mia Mingus, “Understanding disability and ableism is the work of of every revolutionary, activist and organizer – of every human being.”
Sanket Gala is 20-years old and is currently studying for TYBA Psychology. He wants to pursue a career in psychology and become a mental health professional. Sanket has muscular dystrophy since birth. He loves to meet new people and talk to them and exchange knowledge. He also has a great interest and love for cricket.
Yashna: Sanket, you said you want to be a mental health professional. When did you think of it? What were some of the experiences that shaped this decision?
Sanket: I decided to be a mental health professional when I was in 8th or 9th standard of my school. I started visiting a counsellor at Ummeed when I was 11-12 as I was entering my teens and with the disability I was facing certain emotional problems. The main problem was anger . After visiting counsellor I saw improvement in myself over a period of time. I always wanted to become a doctor but psychology and counselling were the subjects which attracted me and made me think. I realised that pursuing a career in psychology and being a mental health professional would help me have a good future as I had to also see at how my disability will be in future years.
Yashna: What are some of your hopes of being a mental health professional?
One of the reason I wanted to become a mental health professional was to create awareness in people regarding mental health. Not only that I think that by being a mental health professional I could reach more people and specially children and help them with the growing pressure of the world.
Yashna: What have been some of your understandings about mental health from your experience of growing up as a disabled young boy to a disabled young man?
Sanket: My understanding of mental health has been that it is something which drives a person to move ahead in life and face everything that comes in your way. According to me having a good mental health is very important as it may also affect your physical health. One thing I have understood is that mental health is a state of mind which makes a person comfortable or uncomfortable in their daily lives and may have it’s own effects depending on the state of mind and depending on the surroundings. But yes there should be a balance as in a person should not always be in a comfortable position and not always be uncomfortable.
Regarding the surroundings, my classroom was at the top floor and despite many requests, the school did not understand my situation. So my father had to lift me up along with the wheelchair and that brought us both stress, fear, upset. During the PT period, I would be alone as a kid in the class not knowing how to spend my next 45 minutes by myself. All these experiences made me angry and affected my mental health.
Yashna: What does mental health today look like for a wheelchair user who is navigating through an ableist world?
Sanket: Living in today’s world and navigating on wheelchair can be difficult at a number of times. But I have got used to it. I have had instances where while we are trying catch a taxi some of the taxi drivers see me and say no that they won’t take us. Some have even refused to take the wheelchair but ask for extra charges. But there even have been taxi drivers who have seen me and stopped and dropped me at my destination even if they were about to take a lunch break or were going to end their day. So there have been both good and bad experience and now as I have got used to such experiences and I have support of people around me, they don’t affect my mental health.
You need frequent help with a lot of things. So asking for frequent help could be a problem for many people. For that I needed to be confident. Like calling the peon to go to the washroom during the school, call for help again and again, I have not hesitated to call for help. Even if I don’t have friends or familiar people, I don’t hesitate to ask anyone for help. We need to develop this understanding that everyone needs help at some point in the world. It’s been easier for me because my people around me, friends have been very supportive of me. But I know of people for who, people around them, schools, other systems are not supportive. So it’s good to find out about people who will definitely help you.
I have started to accept that there are certain things in our country which shouldn’t be as they are but since we are progressing it may improve in near future but while bringing this change there can be difficulties. This helps me keep good mental health.
Yashna: What are some systems/spaces around you and around people with disabilities that can be supportive of them?
Sanket: The system I would like to change would be transport and infrastructure. For someone on wheelchair the transportation in our country in not very accessible. In Mumbai no public transport has accessibility for wheelchair and even if it is there it’s not in a good condition. Even the buses in Mumbai that are wheelchair accessible run only in a few areas. The footpaths are either too narrow or are in not a very good state and don’t have slopes at regular intervals. On Sundays, I go downstairs to my building and watch my dad play volleyball. I go to this club wherein my dad plays and I love going there. The footpath doesn’t have a slope there and I need someone to lift me up on the footpath. I then seek help from friends from the club or just people who are there, so I need to have that sort of confidence to be able to ask for help.
The other thing I would like to change is education system by making it more inclusive for disabled. I do know that we live in a world where people don’t have perspectives. And people don’t think in multiple ways. And I have thought in one way but now I am more conscious of multiple perspectives, experiences. I feel that there should be a law that even if it is one-floor building, there should be a lift but there’s a general understanding that a building with three-floors does not have a lift. The restaurants and café that I want to go to have steps and no ramps, and these places have doors so small that my wheelchair misses getting stuck by half an inch. So people shouldn’t go by whether it will look good or not but how things can be made easy for everyone.
Yashna: What are some of the things, you think, you will bring in as an important quality to the mental health space? What will this make possible for the people you work with?
Sanket: I think that if I become a good mental health professional I would try to bring positivity in the space. I would try and keep the space as lively and joyful as possible.
I think that with these qualities the work which we do may feel enjoyable and less stressful. We can find new ways in which we could help people. Not only that as we would be in a good mood with a less stressed mind we could hear our client more efficiently.
Yashna: What are some of the messages you have for fellow disabled young people in how they can take care of their mental health?
Sanket: One message I would like to give to people like me is that if you want to have a good mental health do what you like . Follow your dreams. Do not stop following your dream whatever comes your way. Never hesitate to ask for help. Stay strong. Stay positive . Stay happy.
Yashna: Thank you for this conversation, Sanket!
Yashna Vishwanathan is a Mental Health Worker at Ummeed Child Development Center and she works with children and young adults experiencing or at risk of disabilities and their families.