Five women, physically-challenged, are erasing stereotypes by empowering people

Differently-abled is a euphemism these women dislike. Despite facing several challenges, they are empowering people and making a difference in their lives. They want to prove why it is important to listen to disabled people for an inclusive society.  

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, MetroPlus speaks to some of the women leading the way and empowering men and women.

Sabriye Tenberken 

(Co-founder, kanthari)

Visually-disabled Sabriye strides ahead with her white cane, forging forward in directions where many would hesitate. Co-founded by Sabriye in the green environs of Vellayani in Thiruvananthapuram in 2009, kanthari ( imparts leadership training to equip their students (she calls them participants) to be changemakers in different fields. A year-long curriculum with immersive, hands-on training helps “participants to be changemakers in their countries,” says Sabriye.

“We have had 280 participants, from 55 countries. The youngest was 21, the oldest, 66. There were graduates and non-graduates, those with different disabilities and they came from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. They were all marginalised for different reasons. Some came from war zones, tribal conflict areas; some were on the streets…Now, they are leading the change” she says with evident pride. 

She talks about “amazing women, women who have faced different kinds of violence but were not crushed.”

“They are standing up and starting to change mindsets, not only of men but of women who thought it was normal to be oppressed. We had people with disability who rebelled against being seen as objects of charity but wanted to do something good for the world.”

Sabriye herself is a role mode, someone who says that “blindness is not an obstacle but more of a catapult, an accelerator”.  

“Blindness is a disability only in the eyes of those who don’t know what it is. When you have a limitation, and you embrace it, you will become a problem solver. Everything that is new becomes an interesting challenge, something that needs to be overcome and pushes you to think in a more creative way.”

Sabriye believes that being a woman, female participants who have been through trauma are able to connect with her and talk to her openly as they perceive her to be empathetic.

Sharada Devi

(Assistant Professor, University College)

Sharada Devi, Disability Studies Scholar 

Sharada Devi, Disability Studies Scholar 
| Photo Credit:

Sharada was all set to shop when she reached the outlet of a major textile store in Thiruvananthapuram. A flight of steps, which she could not navigate on her wheelchair came as a dampener. She certainly did not want someone to carry her.

Disappointed, she returned home and wrote about her experience on her Facebook page. Less than a week later, a colleague told her that a ramp had been built, which allowed wheelchair access from the entrance and rear of the building.

A congenital condition that arrested bone growth has made her a “short-statured person” who uses a wheelchair.

“As an academic and Disability Studies scholar, I have engaged in advocacy for the rights of the disabled. I have been able to help many unlearn the ‘ableist biases’ about disabled persons, thus letting them think and implement simple solutions to foster inclusion of persons with disabilities,” she says.

Sharada adroitly moves around the college in her wheelchair. Although there is a ramp to help her access her room, she says heritage buildings in the college still do not have facilities to let wheelchair users access the rooms on the first floor.

Sharada says she is against the word differently-abled because “it is a euphemism that implies that we have some special abilities that are unique to us. That’s not true. For instance, my ability to speak, write and read are abilities many have.”

She elaborates: “The Right of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act defines us as people with various disabilities and there are rights given to us. The UN charter also uses the word persons with disability. However, disability is a social construct that occurs when society fails to gives us facilities and an environment to lead a dignified life.”

She asserts that women must have an identity of their own and be self-confident to be empowered. “And education is most important to achieve that. Financial independence is also important.”

“In the case of women with disabilities, we are already marginalised. To be empowered and become a part of the mainstream, one has to be educated and also have a supportive family.”

Tiffany Brar

(Founder of Jyothirgamaya Foundation)

Tiffany Brar 

Tiffany Brar 
| Photo Credit:

Tiffany, a student of kanthari, started her foundation in 2012 to empower the visually-challenged by giving them the tools to find gainful employment.

“We have been giving mobility training and classes in computer, Android, iphones and  English to disabled students. We also give them food and accommodation free of charge at our office in Kowdiar,” says Tiffany, campaigner and advocate for an inclusive society.  

A TEDx speaker, Tiffany has been  at the forefront to help the visually-challenged lead meaningful lives without being confined to their homes.

A recipient of the Government of India’s Nari Shakthi Purakskar among several other awards, Tiffany has trained more than 100 people through a four-month course that includes computer training, use of mobile phones, inter-personal skills, Braille, yoga, and so on.

“Many people have got into the corporate sector. Some students are working in banks, call centres …,” she says.  

Although she feels there could be vast improvements in the ecosystem to help the visually disabled, she does not think her saying it would make a difference. “We need better footpaths, roads without potholes and so on but instead of talking about all that, I would rather work on training people to stand on their own feet,” she maintains.

She points out the lack of announcements on public transport, lack of access to offices and banks…

“There are announcements on Vande Bharat trains. But how many can afford to travel in it? Unlike some countries abroad, in India, it is not mandatory to ensure facilities for the disabled in public spaces and transportation.”

 However, these have not deterred Tiffany from pursuing her path and helping others to walk independently.

Lekshmy R and Parvathy R

(Art faculty members, CADRRE)

Lekshmy R and Parvathy R

Lekshmy R and Parvathy R
| Photo Credit:

The artistic twins are go-getters who enjoy life to the fullest with their sons. Both work as art faculty members at CADRRE (Centre for Autism and Other Disabilities Rehabilitation Research and Education). The hearing-impaired women have not let that stand in the way of living life to the full.  

In a Whatsapp message, they explain how their challenge has helped them connect better with their students. “We have noticed that some of the kids on the autism spectrum at CADRRE feel more comfortable while interacting with us and ask us for help.  We feel that they are able to relate to us better in many ways.”

Agreeing that there are challenges, they write: “The work demands a lot of physical involvement especially with some of them reacting in different ways such as biting or pushing. This was difficult initially but we learned how to work with each kid.“

They feel that their “keen observation skill and better reaction at times compared to those who are not deaf, helped us adapt to such physically strenuous situations.  With the help of staff and supporting staff at CADRRE we can communicate with each child.”

Enthusiastic users of Instagram, they enjoy teaching art. “We like taking photos and videos of the various activities and watching how each kid spends his/her time.”

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