I was at a world congress in Agra, India, last month, talking about disability. As well as the value of interacting with 1200 delegates from developing countries, I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to see the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, Mughal India’s most renowned world heritage sites.
Unsurprisingly, on the afternoon I made my visits several thousand other tourists had had the same idea, most of them from India. As I struggled on wheelchair and hands and knees to negotiate centuries-old buildings with their many marble steps, I realized that many of those visitors were as interested in me as they were in the imposing walls, beautiful carvings and tinkling fountains.
All Europeans are hassled by hawkers selling postcards and guidebooks, and tour guides offering their expertise. But a white man with a visible disability is an unusual sight, and one which many Indians wanted to record on their cameras or mobile phones. If there’s one thing worse than being stared at or laughed at, it’s being photographed like a freak show.
I asked my companion for the rudest possible Hindi insult, but in the event felt unable to use that word. Instead, I glared fiercely or shouted “Stop!” to interrupt those rude tourists who did not consider that a person with disability may also have feelings and a right to their dignity.
As evening fell and the moon came out, I was sitting by the Taj Mahal in wonder. A diffident Indian man came over to me, holding the hand of his delightful six year-old daughter. She was shy about meeting a foreign stranger using a wheelchair. But I was able to shake her little hand and say “Namaste”. I hope she went on her way understanding that even people who look very different are human beings just like her.