New Delhi: “Hi, I am Nidhi Goyal and I am blind, but so is love, maybe we should get over it”. That’s how Nidhi Goyal, India’s first female disabled stand-up comedian introduces herself to overcome the awkwardness that sets in when she walks on a stage. 36-year-old Goyal started doing comedy in December 2015. Recalling her debut performance which was done on an invitation of two non-governmental organisations and some activists, Ms Goyal said,
I used to share stories of ableism and make people laugh in circles. While doing so, I never thought of narrating my experiences to a larger group of people and being a comedian. So, the first performance was more like a trial we did. But people were so uncomfortable for the first two to three minutes that they forgot that I am a comic. They only kept looking at my disability. At the end of the performance, a woman came up to me and said, I was laughing and falling off my chair but also cringing thinking, ‘Oh my god, I do this to people with disabilities’.
Ms Goyal was around 15-year-old when she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive degenerative eye disorder that mostly renders one blind. The young Goyal was in Class 10 and the diagnosis had put a question mark on her career choice of being a portrait painter or venture into fine arts and visual space. And the only question that surrounded her was, “What do I do next?”
I wanted to be a painter since I was four but, one day, after 10 years of preparation, I get to know, I can’t achieve it. And then began my struggle with making a career choice. Every day was a surprise like I used to take public transport to college; one day I could cross the street and the second day, I would get saved by a micro-second because I didn’t see a bike speeding towards me. I started to discover what I could and could not see which, at that point, I equated to, what I could and could not do because that’s how an ableist world makes you think. The popular idea is that when you are losing sight, you are losing abilities, but that’s not true, said Ms Goyal.
Ms Goyal is the youngest of three siblings, born and raised in Mumbai. Ms Goyal’s eldest brother suffers from the same disease and had lost his vision completely by the time his sister was diagnosed. Growing up, when a regular teenager would be fascinated by their looks and their dreams, discovering themselves and the world, Ms Goyal, had to spend time unraveling her disability. Explaining her journey post-diagnosis in three steps, she said,
It begins with discovering things like now I can’t see text also. Second, you have to accept the discovery and then find the alternative to perform the job. For example, when I couldn’t write my accounting paper, I had to opt for a scribe.
After completing class 10, she moved to junior college followed by graduation in commerce. Parallely, the disease continued to deteriorate and within four to five years of diagnosis, Ms Goyal completely lost her vision. However, with the support of her family, she continued with her education and attained Master’s degree and did Diploma in Human Resource Management followed by a Post-Graduation in Communication Media. She went to intern with media houses and later worked as a journalist, writer and translator. In 2011, Ms Goyal’s activism journey began and she started voicing for the rights of people with disability.
One thing that followed her through all stages of life was the discrimination because of her blindness. For instance, once an airline denied assisting her during an eight-hour layover. When Ms Goyal decided to go to a café and grab a cup of coffee on her own or use a washroom, her passport was taken away.
In college, there were men who were not allowed to talk to women and bring women home but I was always an exception for them. Where is this confidence coming from? Because I am not a ‘girl’, I am a ‘disabled girl’. Similarly, once during a group project, I wrote a script and decided to be a narrator while other members got various roles because they could practice over the weekend and I wasn’t available for it. But, the group leader asked me to practice over the phone because they were not sure of my capabilities as a disabled person, she said.
In December 2015, after her debut as a stand-up comedian, Ms Goyal continued to use humour to challenge existing notions around disability and gender. Even then, people questioned her choice of talking about disability while other comedians would talk about their lives. However, disability is a part of Ms Goyal’s life, as she says.
If you think my life is an issue, it is not. I actually do comedy about my life. Now that I am married, I will make jokes around my husband, she said and laughed on the call.
Through her non-profit organisation Rising Flame, Ms Goyal and her team, are working for the recognition, protection, and promotion of human rights of people with disabilities, particularly women and youth with disabilities. The organisation aims to build an inclusive world in which diverse bodies, minds, and voices thrive with dignity, and enjoy equal opportunities and access.
Rising Flame was born out of the experiences of persons with disabilities. I saw a clear gap where disabled leadership wasn’t valued. They had access to education and employment but they were not still seen as decision makers. People were deciding for them. The majority of our team is disabled, like, I am the Founder and Executive Director and I am blind, she said.
To promote the idea of inclusion and leaving no one behind, Rising Flame recently started a campaign ‘My Tale Too’, which aims to rewrite the narratives of popular movies or novels with people with disabilities in the lead. Over a dozen stories have been written by women with varied disabilities like two of the women are acoustic, one is hard of hearing, and one is queer and has a locomotive disability, which refers to disability in legs.
We will soon be publishing the stories where you will have acoustic Ugly Duckling, hard of hearing Rapunzel, and deaf Snow White. By rearranging such stories, women will reclaim their narratives, Ms Goyal said.
The disabled-feminist activist is on the diversity and inclusion task force of FICCI, and sits on the advisory board of Voice, a grant making project by the Dutch ministry. She has been a global advisor to UN Women’s Executive Director and worked with a range of national and global women’s rights, disability rights, and human rights organisations. When asked where we are still lacking when it comes to leaving no one behind and ensuring inclusion, Ms Goyal said,
Mindset of the people is a big challenge. Once I was at a Mumbai airport and a woman, from the airport staff, assisting me was taking me through a narrow passage. Instead of telling me to turn around and walk sideways, she grabbed me by my waist and turned me around. When I raised it, I was told that “we are trying to help you”. Would she or any other person have done the same with a “normal” woman? The issue is that we, people with disabilities, are not counted as a part of normal diversity. Like, in a class, there are some slow learners and some are fast. But if you look at disability as diversity, you will find someone who learns through audio because they are visually impaired, two students learn through sign language, five others learn through art.
Ms Goyal believes that at some point, society is fine with people with disabilities existing, getting educated and employed but not okay with them having “normal” experiences like getting married and being a mother. We have removed people with disabilities from the category “normal”, she said.
While signing off, the comedian and activist said,
When I talk to corporates, I say, at hindsight, I feel sorry because you had to pay lakhs of rupees and go to a business school but I learned all of those lessons in life. I learned crisis management, innovation, adapting to change, empathy, inclusion, and strength of diversity by becoming blind.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.