Field Notes: ‘Woh Pagal Hai’—The Life Of Women With Disabilities In India


“If I knew where the hospital was, I would have gone by myself.”

These were the few words that 25-year-old Sampal Kumari uttered when I interviewed her at her village in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district. When I asked what her disability was, Sampal’s mother said, “Wo pagal hai.” (She is mad).

As I asked more questions for a piece that I was reporting about the poor access to healthcare people with disabilities have in India, I found out that Sampal had a learning disability and had suffered epileptic seizures almost every day since she was a child. Still, her family had never been able to consult a doctor. 

“We give her jadi-booti wala dawai (local herbal medicines),” her mother said. “They will make her better.” 

In all my interviews with women with disabilities, everyone except the women spoke. 

When I interviewed 30-year-old Sharvari Todvar in Tileibani town in Odisha’s Deogarh district, her neighbours and relatives were the ones to talk while she just nodded when I asked her some questions. 

The silence echoed the lack of agency and increased dependence women with disabilities face. And the women who did speak were faced with judgement and stigma. 

When I met her in February 2023, Rashmita Bhola, a 21-year-old college student from Puri in Odisha, who is partially blind, had only one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Bhola told me that her parents did not care for her well-being and refused to take her to the vaccination centre. She had to find one on her own and ask a friend to accompany her.

Bhola told me that she wanted to study more and do her graduation in computer science, but her parents would not allow her. 

While Bhola was speaking, her male friend was helping her fill out some documentation. 

When we finished the interview and were on our way back to Bhubaneswar, where I was staying, the NGO representative who was travelling with me said, “I think she was lying. She had gold earrings and a mobile phone. No way her parents hate her. She must have an affair with that boy. That is why her parents are restricting her.”

I could not fathom the level of stigma Bhola and other women with disabilities face, given that a representative of a disability rights organisation could say something like this. 

You can read Shreya Raman’s full story here

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