Simple as it may sound, there’s a lot to be said about who is able or disabled. A person not acquainted with technology in today’s time is disabled in many ways. People who find it difficult to communicate socially are disabled in handling relationships and social interactions. But do we call them disabled therefore? Instead we focus on what they can do normally, which makes them able. This story about shifting the focus from disability to ability makes for a powerful reminder for all of us so called able people.. Someone had said, ‘My ability is stronger than my disability’. This story is Goonj’s salute to the sheer grit, passion and commitment of the few in Goonj, who have come out of their disability and made a space for themselves. This story is about someone’s potential rather than credentials and the little shift of context that turns a person into a responsible contributor to the society instead of a burden seeking help.
Rakesh suffers from partial paralysis from birth, severely limiting his mobility. To the rest of the world he is a disabled person because he can’t articulate himself easily but he finds a special mention in this story due to his 14 year’s association with a critical aspect of our work. Since its inception Goonj has not bought single new sheet of paper. More than 4 lakh one side used paper sheets have been processed at Goonj’s 10 offices pan India for IEC material, survey forms, annual reports, leaflets, letterheads, all printing work, notepads etc. We can’t even begin to calculate the money we have saved on this small expense over the years. If you ever visit Goonj’s processing center in Delhi you will see Rakesh quietly sitting at our paper unit, diligently pouring his heart and soul into his work. When Rakesh first came to Goonj in 2002, accompanied by his worried mother, he expressed his inability to do much. His question was, would we still have something for him to do? We took him on despite our initial hesitation and his family member’s lack of faith in him.
Today he together with another differently able team member looks after Goonj’s paper unit. Over the years, the marked change in Rakesh’s confidence as he freely interacts with the rest of the team and the visitors is a reassuring reminder of what we can achieve despite our challenges. Green By Goonj is a brand of innovative lifestyle products evolved from last shreds of cloth and other material we get. It has emerged out of the creativity and experiments of women who have no formal training in design or aesthetics. It took one man’s constant nurturing of their ideas that brought this about. Bijay Ji as he is lovingly called by everyone, has a great talent for mimicry and every once in a while he regales the team with antics of different team members. The slight limp in his walk is the only giveaway of the prosthetic leg that he stands on. Bijay ji used to be an enthusiastic football player until he lost his right leg in an accident when he was just 22. Suddenly his life changed but he took all his pain, frustration and difficulties with great humility. After trying different things; from giving tuitions to running a general merchant shop, and trying out many jobs, he joined Goonj in 2008. These were also Goonj’s initial years so he wasn’t getting a lot for sustenance but what kept him going is best summed up in his words.
“When I joined I used to get paid less but I did not leave the job because the work environment at Goonj was very nice and I knew that we work for the underprivileged. I have worked with many companies before but what I like about working here is that we live as a big family here. There are no designations and nobody presses you down.. When you make mistakes the focus is not on correction by threatening the person but by improving things around. In my earlier company my supervisor had a highly suppressive approach with the subordinates but at Goonj things are different.. I enjoy my work here.” Despite difficulty in walking long distance or climbing stairs Bijay Ji supervises all the work related to cutting, stitching and developing the Green by Goonj product line with utmost efficiency. He shares his joy in training the women at the Goonj workshop as they further train other women in their own localities and the work spreads. “ऐ यहाँ आओ कपड़ा मारो, साफ़ करो” is the one line Wasim Bhai remembers commonly referred to him in his earlier jobs before he joined Goonj’s processing center in Delhi.
Afflicted with polio from childhood, Wasim Bhai hails from West Bengal where he ran a general store. He lived in a Jhuggi (Railway colony) until it was demolished and he migrated to Delhi with his family. Here he started work as a cleaner at a car washing center and later shifted to work as a baker in a hotel. Few months later when Wasim Bhai joined Goonj, he was involved in clothes washing in the beginning. ”In my previous job there was no respect for me. I have seen all kind of humiliation at the hands of people I worked with. In Goonj people respect each other.” Today Wasim Bhai segregates one side old use paper with Rakesh and also helps with cutting the oversized cloth for Green By Goonj products. ‘The worst thing about a disability is that people see it before they see you’..best exemplifies how most of us look at people with disabilities. Dinesh Singh lost his left hand while working in a toy manufacturing company in Delhi when he was just 14.
The shocked young boy went back home to Madhubani (Bihar) where it took him many years to adapt to normal life. Years later when he came back to Delhi in search of a job, no one would even consider him for menial jobs. He took to running a rickshaw for his livelihood instead. Today Dinesh is a part of the hard working Goonj Delhi processing team which dispatches more than 250 truckloads of material in a year. Dinesh pulls the cart rickshaw that transports the material from the congested by lanes of the urban village where our processing center is, to the open ground where the trucks are parked for loading material. This is the work Dinesh chose for himself when we asked him what he would like to do in Goonj. “I know rickshaw pulling. This is what I have been doing from the past 15 years”, he said. He also attends Goonj collection camps with other team members. Dinesh shares, “earlier when I used to pull a rickshaw on the roads of Delhi, I would earn some 200-300 a day, but I hardly saved anything. There was no economic security. When I fell ill all my meager saving would be spent quickly on medical expense. I get a sense of belonging in this organization. The working environment is good here. There is a chance for people like us to co-exist with everyone.” We have never spoken and laid much emphasis on this part of our work and hence this generally remains unnoticed from the visitor’s eyes as well. But another thing that is pertinent to mention here is that their involvement is not limited to just what they are generally assigned with.. rather it is much beyond that.. at every single occasion/event or even in disasters their participation is just phenomenal just like any other members in the team.. Anshu Gupta’s (Goonj’s Founder Director) credo for his team has always been ‘Lagey Raho’. It is ultimately the ‘spirit’ and the ‘can do’ attitude of a person and not the physical or mental disabilities which determine what he or she will make of his life. We hope you remember that next time you judge anyone’s abilities or disabilities…