On a chilly evening in DC last weekend, I had to attend a friend’s birthday. After racing down the metro’s steps, cutting past sauntering travelers, I had reached the platform to find my train a little delayed. So much for that, I had thought, cursing the red line, which operates with about as much predictability as the murderous public buses of Karachi. Pacing around the platform, I settled on a spot to stand and wait; one foot against the wall, fiddling with the playlist on my phone.
Then I saw him. He was steadfastly making his way through the crowd, smiling and saying “excuse me,” where he came up too close to another person. His stick gently surveyed the route ahead, alerting him to obstacles and open space. He was walking in my direction, red shopping bag in hand. As a few people in between cleared away, it seemed for a moment that he would walk into me. He didn’t though, and paused a few feet away. The gentleman was visually challenged.
Using that term, visually challenged, always takes me back to a sunny afternoon in middle school, when I first learnt of it from Ms. Saima Ammar. Ms. Ammar had come to my school to give a guest lecture, and she shared her perspective on life for visually impaired individuals, and the the steps society should undertake to ensure that they too have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. At one point, she made us close our eyes and re-imagine the world and how we might navigate it. Still in our early teens, Ms. Ammar’s lecture left an impact on all of us. At the time, she was the Director of the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness (PFFB), an Islamabad-based NGO which was working (and still does) to develop educational material for visually challenged individuals. Several years later, I would do a summer internship at PFFB. Ms. Ammar touched the lives of many people through her work, and provided invaluable service to the visually challenged community of Pakistan. Her exemplary grit was an inspiration to everyone who came to know her. It still is, though sadly, she passed away in 2011.
In the ceaseless bustle of everyday life, most people in fact become visually challenged, as we lost sight of all the privileges already accorded to us by life. A healthy mind, body, the ability to work, to study, play, and the list can go on. So often, one becomes mired in what one doesn’t have, what must be done, what must be acquired. We fail to get something we want, and feel tremendously frustrated and indignant. In a dynamic world, these moments can overwhelm one completely if one doesn’t take time out to think of all that one does have, and moreover, to be grateful for it. The blessing of sight is certainly one of these bounties. Being able to see, feel, and operate in a world of colour is not a privilege granted to everyone.
It shouldn’t stop there though. Being grateful for what one has and doing nothing about the challenges faced by one’s fellow citizens is not good enough. It will not lead to an equitable world. Any fair social contract must recognize the unique starting points of individuals (and the challenges faced by them) to the greatest extent possible, and thereafter assign an appropriately calibrated level of social support to those individuals. That is the mark of a truly civilized society.
The train eventually arrived. The visually challenged gentleman stepped on first. I followed, conscious of my trivial frustrations, and grateful for the few minutes of delay which had reminded me to be grateful.