#Personal Stories

My Entrepreneurial Journey Is A Testimony To Break Stigma Around Disability

Differently-Abled Individuals
In a society that relies on conventional beliefs to dictate its daily livelihood, the stigma associated with differently-abled individuals is hardly a dinner table conversation. As someone with a visible physical disability, convention dictates that the life I am supposed to lead is one of solitude, isolation and dependence. The scrutiny that comes with the said preconceived notion applies to a degree wherein shock and disbelief are the first two reactions I receive when I introduce myself as the founder of a business in a highly competitive industry.

As a right-hand amputee, courtesy of an accident caused by a drunk bus driver on a school trip I took over a decade ago, the societal expectation of me is to never lead a normal life, let alone have one at all. 

Similar to an entrepreneurial venture, every day has been a new day in my life since I lost my arm. I can’t walk on the street, attend a meeting or walk into a room without the scrutinising glare of strangers to whom I don’t owe an explanation. But, there is always an unknowing need to somehow justify that you do, in fact, ‘fit in.’ As a former member of the client-servicing industry, there was never an introductory meeting that went without addressing the ‘elephant in the room.’ 

The point is, there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is our ability to understand how someone feels, while sympathy is our relief in not having the same problems. It’s nearly impossible to feel one without the other because being disabled is not exactly a choice. The choice that is yours to make though, when you are put in a situation like the above as a differently-abled person, is how to choose to deal with it.

Breaking Stigma Attached To Differently-Abled Individuals

Over the years, I’ve held a corporate job, gone bungee jumping, dated and I have had an active social life. I actively work out, do pilates and attend spin classes. And even though the initial assumption is always that I can’t or am not meant to do/experience any of the above, I get to have the last word because I take control of the narrative. I allow people the space to process the fact that yes, I’m a 25-year-old amputee who is standing in front of them on a bag of Ambuja cement in the middle of her rubbled restaurant construction site, waiting for her civil contractor and his labourers to revive from the shock of having been introduced as the owner, so we can get on with our meeting.

Emotions are also something that gets misconstrued when you are a woman in a workspace or otherwise. There has been a long-standing perception since time immemorial that women who make it to the top of a corporate hierarchy tend to be less emotional or stone-cold, extremely rigid or extremely zen because they learnt how to numb what they were feeling on their journey up to the top. 

Similarly, it is extremely hard for people to believe that I am angry because something actually did go wrong versus I’m angry simply because I’m angry at my life. I’ve been verbally accused of this on multiple occasions throughout the process of building my restaurant by people who don’t know any better. My question to those people is – why is it that the lack of an emotional quotient or being too emotional are equated as being signs of strength and weakness, respectively? Why is it difficult to believe that we, as women, also possess the ability to compartmentalise while still expressing our emotions when required? Hence, the larger systemic issue boils down to the lack of exposure, thereby limiting one’s ability to have an open mind when it comes to disabled people in the country.

There is a reason why ‘accessibility’ for the differently abled is a tough conversation in India because if they truly were to implement it, they would have to start right in the rural areas of the country, which often tends to have a more prevalent differently-abled population. How can a problem be solved and a whole set of differently abled individuals be supported if the problem is not being addressed right at the bottom of the pyramid? That said, a particular set of people have been fine-tuned to believe that if you have an impairment, you don’t have the right to normalcy, to feel attractive, to fall in love, to get married, to keep a job, to have children or start a business. To those people and to those beliefs I say, ‘why not?’ 

What I can tell you is that the pity party never ends. But change comes from within. So instead of giving up and losing yourself in the midst of all the existing white noise, you can own it and accept it as a challenge because working ‘twice as hard’ comes very naturally to a person with a physical impairment. Something as simple as buttoning a shirt before an important meeting or getting into a cab already takes us twice the effort as compared to somebody that’s not missing a limb.

Therefore, I channel the above into my everyday life, and through the medium of my restaurant, I aim to start a conversation and normalise the idea of a differently abled woman in this country in a fast-paced city like Mumbai, in an empowering leadership role. When I walk up to a table full of guests during a busy dinner service to get feedback on their dining experience, and the server introduces me as the owner, the initial reaction is almost always met with a surprise. But when I turn around and walk away, I’m grinning like a Garfield at the conversational whispers that typically consist of ‘it’s so impressive what she’s done with the space,’ or ‘she’s the owner? That’s so cool, I haven’t been to a solely female-owned restaurant in aeons.”

What you must understand is that you are in control of your journey and destiny and at the end of the day, that is what truly matters. 

At the end of the day, that is what matters. You are in control of your own journey – so write your own chapters. I know it’s easier said than done, which is why, to people like me, I’d like to say, “Allow yourself to cherish the good days and endure the bad ones.”

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Debutante Restauranteur Anushka Pathak is the founder of Nava Restaurant. She is a right-hand amputee herself and an advocate for accessibility for the differently abled in India.

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