Inclov, a match-making app focussing on people with disabilities, in partnership with Enable Travel organised an offline meet-up in Kolkata on January 21, 2018 at the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. The meet-up was probably the first of its kind in Kolkata and, as proclaimed by its organisers, its primary aim was to create a ‘social space’ that would be inclusive in nature.

Ironically enough, in the popular discourses and perceptions, the concept of ‘inclusion’ often tends to be misinterpreted as efforts ‘focussing’ on disability, thereby perpetuating exclusion under a subtly different garb.

In this photograph, there is a close-up focus on the hand movements of a sign language interpreter, presumably a man, present during the Inclov meet-up on January 21, 2018. The photograph is divided into four quadrants, and each shows different words and phrases being articulated. The interpreter is wearing a full sleeves t-shirt, and some white thread on his right wrist. In two of the pictures, the hands are almost a blur. Photo credit: Prosenjit Pal

In an ableist society, disability and undesirability are perceived as synonymous. However, the demand and conception of such a social meet-up and the spontaneous participation of people with and without disabilities (whatever their ratio may be) can be expected to meaningfully contribute to the gradual dismantling of the popular ableist notions. This event may have contributed to this objective, but it also had its share of problems.

This meet-up, where participants were expected to find a date or a partner, didn’t address the question of gender identity or sexual orientation. I felt that there was a kind of presumption on the part of the organisers, which might have been detrimental to the spirit of the event. In addition, the number of male participants far exceeded that of the female ones. It would perhaps not be far-fetched to interpret this imbalance as a small-scale reflection of the reality of gender inequality which dominates the general situation of disability in India.

At the time of registration, before entering the auditorium, the participants were asked to tie up white or red ribbons around their wrist, depending on whether they expected to make new friends or find a partner. Such a presumed distinction of choice, which appeared to be simplistic if not naïve, seemed to forestall any other possibility of social communication.

The particularly large number of visually disabled participants struck me as quite significant. Interestingly, this serves to reinstate the fact that the general disability scene in India is visibly dominated by the community of visually disabled persons.

Hosted by RJ Den, the event began with a round of introductions where the participants were asked to introduce themselves to the ones sitting nearby and to strike up a conversation with them. While this gave us the opportunity of making some new acquaintances, in reality we finally ended up chatting with friends and persons whom we knew from beforehand. Moreover, since many of us were visually disabled, our mobility and consequently our scope of meeting people seated a little farther got quite restricted.

Next, there was a dance performance by Chandrayee Dutta Chowdhury, an activist associated with an NGO. As later described by her to me, the performance was about the narration of the struggle of her life. This was inaccessible to most of the attendees who were visually disabled. In fact, I personally felt quite left out during this session. I think that this performance should have been replaced by some other event or could have been made more inclusive by involving the participants in it.

This photograph is a close-up side shot of a participant with a certain degree of blindness at the Inclov meet-up on January 21, 2018. The participant, a young man, is listening into his mobile phone. He is leaning forward a bit, the side of his face hidden by his hand and phone – only his hair, neck, ear, prettily printed shirt, and spectacles are partially visible. The screen side of the phone is turned towards the camera and is brightly lit with text windows. In the background the blur of a few other participants can be seen. Photo credit: Prosenjit Pal

The performance was followed by a short address by representatives from Enable Travel and Inclov, where they highlighted the need and profitability of offering accessible and customised services.

This was followed by a brief session hosted by Jeeja Ghosh, a renowned human rights activist who raised the issue of ‘falling in love’ and the diverse emotional impacts it has on individuals. In this session which was particularly interactive, Jeeja Ghosh shared her personal experiences vis-à-vis love and marriage.

In the meantime, refreshments were arranged and Inclov volunteers and our new acquaintances helped us with food and drinks. This part of the event was also when people mingled around a bit more.

I returned from the event with mixed feelings and a hope of attending such an event again. It needs to be mentioned though that the cost of the tickets for this event, which ranged from around Rs.600-800, was somewhat encumbering and consequently set the bar of expectation quite high.

While I sincerely appreciate this event for opening up several possibilities of important dialogue on inclusion, disability, love and desire, I also feel that it failed to live up to our expectations on certain levels. I believe that to realise maximum inclusion, it is absolutely essential to acknowledge demographic heterogeneity and to address the needs and choices of diverse individuals.

About the main photo: Combination of two photographs taken during the meet-up at Lalit Great Eastern Hotel, Kolkata on January 21, 2018. On the left – event host RJ Den introduces activist Chandrayee Dutta Chowdhury before her dance performance; an Inclov poster on the right. Other photographs also show scenes from the meet-up. All photo credits: Prosenjit Pal