Nidhi Goyal is the founder-director of Rising Flame – an NGO working for the rights of people with disabilities, especially womxn and youth. In addition to being a disability rights activist, Nidhi has several other feathers in her hat. She is the youngest and the first person with disability to become the president of Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). She has been at the helm of training programs focused at the intersections of disability, gender, violence and sexuality. She is a board member of UN Women New York, Dutch Ministry project Voice and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), among others.
And she can also leave you in splits – the feisty 34-year-old is a stand-up comedian as well.
Having founded Rising Flame in 2017, Nidhi believes there is an urgent need for youth and womxn with disability to take up leadership positions and become catalysts of change for a more inclusive society. “Rising Flame also aspires to provide a platform that would train womxn with disabilities and engage in capacity-building measures so that they find opportunities to excel and make themselves heard,” said Nidhi. She felt that none of the existing not-for-profit organisations were mobilising enough when it comes to the gendered realities of disabled womxn, especially from the lens of disability and vice-versa. “The lived experiences of women and the trans community within the disabled people’s community were not getting highlighted enough,” she said.
So Nidhi knew she had to do something about this, but it was only gradually that Rising Flame took its form. While she began building contacts in both the activist space as well as the spaces for people with disability, she also fielded accusations that she was “not being an activist” enough. It wasn’t like Nidhi did not speak on disability and sexuality. She did, way back in 2011 itself. But considering how there was hardly any discourse on sexuality especially within the community of people with disabilities, her voice was not heard as loudly as it is now. Not to forget the taboos around open expressions of sexuality and sexual liberty, in addition to the notion that one wielded a certain sense of privilege to discuss sexuality especially in marginalised spaces such as the community of people with disabilities that were perceived as plagued with other concerns.
Nidhi asserts that the larger vision of Rising Flame is that of social integration and to break barriers created by ableist and sexist notions.
“At Rising Flame we seek to break those binaries, creating a diverse and integrated world. So, you could say that our main focus is gender and disability and to help us in our goals we need people with these lived experiences talking about these issues, out in the open and no one else. We can’t have non-disabled people representing the disabled community because we believe in the concept of – ‘Nothing about us, without us.’” says Nidhi.
Not surprisingly, this bold stand has often led to rifts between the feminist movement and the disability rights movement, that Nidhi at the helm of an intersectional organisation such as Rising Flame, witnessed first-hand. She said that people with disability would often slip between the metaphorical cracks created between the feminist movement and the disability rights movement. And Nidhi felt it was important to leave no space for these inequities. “These need to urgently fixed,” she asserted.
At Rising Flame, Nidhi and her team aspires to abide by both feminist and disability rights principles in thought and action. Nidhi cited the example of her team: Rising Flame is headed by a woman with a disability and her team equitably comprises of disabled womxn and youth taking on leadership roles, something which she had envisioned for her organisation in 2017.
Nidhi said, “Another way we emphasise on our principles is by reclaiming digital spaces for the marginalised communities. For instance, we ran “Edit-a-thons” with people with disability in which we aimed to build capacities of youth with disabilities and train them to become Wikipedia editors so that they can create content on womxn with disability.”
The concept of claiming spaces is another aspect that Nidhi talked about, at length. According to her, it involves the accessibility to both physical and digital spaces by people with disability. Nidhi observes that traditionally, womxn and other minorities have been kept away from mainstream spaces and the denial of the right to access these spaces mostly comes down to one factor – a person’s identity. “It is important to keep in mind that we need not be offered these spaces, they belong to all of us,” she asserted.
“We are always expected to apologise as womxn,” Nidhi said, referring to the largely patriarchal control of physical, urban and digital spaces. “Where womxn with disabilities are concerned, the stigma extends even further,” she noted.
Nidhi is aware of the privilege she enjoys. A distinct part of her journey was made possible due to the support she got from her family. She believes that conversations around reclaiming spaces cannot happen unless we acknowledge and recognise our privilege and use our social position to reflect and create visibility for other minorities.
For her, the barriers that many others face when it comes to reclaiming spaces were absent, yet she ensured that she reflected upon the discrimination of the disabled community in terms of cinema, mass media and social media to form her ideas and arguments about ableism, thus forming an intersectional perspective.
“There has to be a balance found between changing attitudes of people who are apathetic or ignorant, thus creating barriers for persons with disabilities (especially womxn with disabilities) and making efforts to be aware of our privilege around our access to (largely ableist) spaces. This is what prompted me to work with and for the rights of people who live with varying disabilities.” she said.
One of the key actors who ensure womxn with disabilities are not denied their rightful access to enabling spaces is the state. Even though the amendments were later repealed, the Centre’s recent proposal to amend the RPWD act is an example of the state’s apathy. “Had the guidelines become an act, it would have taken away penalizations leaving us with little to no enforcement mechanisms. It would have stripped the disabled community of it’s rights to live with dignity. The government tried to push for these amendments at a time when people with disabilities were especially suffering due to the pandemic,” noted Nidhi. She believes that the entire community of people with disability worked together as a unified sector to show strength and solidarity in condemning such hasty measures from state structures and policy makers.
Nidhi believes that more than just a flip in the government, a more disabled-friendly society, law and policy requires a change in the mindsets of people involved in governance. Nidhi remembered how a government official once attempted to explain to her how the amendment would “prevent people with disability from filing unnecessary and small cases in the court of law”. The official gave the example of how a person with hearing impairment could file a complaint if the building they are in caught fire and the fire alarm had no blinker. “A fire alarm without a blinker could cause the person their life in case there’s a fire but the officer thought it was petty or small to be complained about,” noted Nidhi.
To further emphasise on how the community of womxn with disability were affected by the global pandemic, in addition to the apathy of the government, Rising Flame, in association with Sightsavers, launched a much-needed report called Neglected and Forgotten: Women With Disabilities during the Covid Crisis in India. The project is on the impact of COVID-19 on womxn with disabilities, garnering responses from 82 womxn to delve into aspects such as Access, Health, Emotional Well-Being and Social Protection, among others. Talking about the project, Nidhi said “The biggest question around womxn with disabilities is ‘Where’s the data?’ We’re not just giving anecdotal evidence.”
For Rising Flame, it was important to work on this project because in addition to the advocacy efforts that they were making as part of mobilisation, they thought it was equally, if not more, important to capture the fears, the recommendations, and the lived experiences of the community, especially given the precarity that COVID-19 had resulted in. “In addition, we wanted to have a comprehensive disability policy that would also include disabled womxn,” said Nidhi.
When the Department of Empowerment of Persons With Disabilities came out with its recommendations, it had just one mention of womxn with disabilities under “special care” taken for womxn with disabilities. Nidhi condemns this as tokenist and believes that adding a line about womxn and children certainly doesn’t help unless the policy and its implementation is gender sensitive and gender inclusive.
She also found a lack of emphasis and hence, invisibility in feminist groups when it comes to matters pertaining to womxn with disabilities.
Rising Flame and Sightsavers’ Neglected and Forgotten project was meant to be smaller than it turned out but womxn with disabilities were still reaching out even after they had closed their research asking them if they could still share their experiences. They also reached out to womxn who did not have digital access, and conducted research within multiple languages: 5 languages from 19 states and 12 experts working in the educational field. Data was recorded across 8 disability groups and the only intentional reach out was to womxn with hearing and visual disability who would often get left behind.
Rising Flame and Sightsavers managed to record a total of 94 respondents in 8 key areas with interlinkages: Access, Health, Education, Employment, Food and essentials, Social connection, Domestic violence and emotional well-being. Issues such as adverse impact on independent living, on menstrual health, safety in homes and outside, emotional well-being, inability to acquire online education due to the lack of access and digital divide were also some of the key highlights of research.
Nidhi believes that there’s much left to do when it comes to creating enabling and inclusive spaces for womxn with disabilities, especially in a post-COVID world. “We easily call it a new normal but we need to create a new normal that is accessible to all.”
Rising Flame and Sightsavers conducted and published a study titled Neglected & Forgotten: Women with Disabilities during the Covid Crisis in India in July 2020. 82 women with disabilities participated in its survey which focused on aspects such as education, information, jobs, social welfare, emotional well-being, etc. This August, Feminism In India will do a deep-delve into the aforementioned themes.