Inspiring hero, tragic victim, or just human?
After four years of hard work Gagan Chhabra will defend his thesis Friday June 18th. In this episode Gagan looks back on his project where he has been comparing Norway to India focusing on disability policy reforms and employment experiences of young adults with visual impairments. Gagan shares the love for his projects but also the many hurdles he has met on the journey.
“Ask, don’t assume” March 2019 – https://vitenogsnakkis.oslomet.no/2019/03/31/ask-dont-assume/
“What is ableism?” July 2020 – https://vitenogsnakkis.oslomet.no/2020/07/31/what-is-disablism/
Den norske velferdsstaten imponerte Gagan. Men så begynte han å undre seg – https://www.handikapnytt.no/den-norske-velferdsstaten-imponerte-gagan-men-sa-begynte-han-a-undre-seg/
June 18th 2021: Public Defense: Gagan Chhabra https://www.oslomet.no/en/about/events/public-defense-gagan-chhabra
Scientific publications by Gagan: https://www.oslomet.no/en/about/employee/gagach/
Hallvard: Welcome back to a new podcast from Viten og Snakkis and welcome back Gagan Chhabra. How are you doing?
Gagan: I’m really swell Hallvard, it’s fantastic to be here with you the third time, in the third year.
Hallvard: It’s so good to have you back and it’s a special occasion. We first talked in 2019 in March, we made a podcast, I introduced you, your project, your PhD project. And we met again a year later and talked about ableism and now suddenly, you finished. What happened?
Gagan: I wish I could explain what happened. It has been an inexplicable journey. Like yes, the PhD-journey is at the end, and I am going to be defending my labor of love, my competitive research wherein I contrast disability policy reforms and the experiences of young adults with visual impairments, employment inclusion experiences into, from Norway and India.
Hallvard: Yeah. It’s been long journey, are you fed up with your project now?
Gagan: No, a part of me is like quite delighted, elated, ecstatic to be over with, because this has been almost like four years, four months and 29 days.
Hallvard: You have been counting.
Gagan: Through this entire journey and with multiple publications, research publications, and it is it’s been quite emotionally gratifying, intellectually rewarding, but at the same time, very arduous task to compare Norway and India. And to ensure that the competitive research stays on track. It delivers the outcomes which it’s supposed to deliver, and it gets accepted in the wider milieu of comparative disability research. So yeah, it’s been an exhausting journey in that sense, but I’m very, very thankful that it has happened and it’s kind of a privilege to do a PhD in the first place and now it’s getting over some feeling. Wow, time has flown so quickly.
Hallvard: But Gagan, how was the reaction when you first came with this project? Wanting to look at India and Norway together, that’s two very different countries. Is it like, is it possible to compare those two countries at all?
Gagan: Yes, and oh my gosh! This is the exact question which people have been asking me from, from the time I thought about this project, like 2015. Late 2015, early 2016, I thought it would be nice to compare Norway in India. There was a lot of resistance towards it, because people always intuitively thought “oh Norway has to be compared to the rich developed, advanced, industrialized world. The OECD, Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.” You know? Like Norway should be compared to Sweden, to Denmark, to Finland, the US, Canada, Australia, UK, but, what? You plan to compare Norway to India? Why would you do that? First of all, if you do that, can you do that?
So many, many people thought in the beginning of this whole journey that this project was quite outlandish, and some were quite outraged as well because, both Norway and India are worlds apart and that’s why, for instance, even my PhD is titled “To Worlds apart, yet similar.”.
So, the idea is that I understand, I appreciate, acknowledge the fact that Norway is one of the best countries in the world when it comes to the human Development index. It was ranked number one in 2019. It’s fantastic to live in Norway. Great social benefits, great social services.
And India is not doing that well. We all have heard all these tragic stories about health care inequities in India right now.
The challenges with COVID vaccine and the rest, and there’s tremendous poverty and inequality in the society and discrimination.
But, the important thing for me in this whole journey was to stay focused on what I was comparing and bring that to light because I think when we compare, we get a chance to learn from other experiences, other perspectives, other countries.
Hallvard: Yeah. So some of the similarities then, you proved them wrong I guess, and found some similarities, maybe?
Gagan: Exactly. If I would take 2 steps back, I would like to recollect, or retell rather, this one incident which happened back in the early days in 2017. I was attending a conference in Lucerne. It was a European conference, ALTAR. And just before the day of my presentation, we were having like a gala dinner, and I was having food. Just chopping the beef trying to make sense that how should I eat it and right next to me was this big demographer from France. Max is his name and he’s asking me, “so young man what are you researching about?”.
And I explained to him I’m comparing Norway and India and I’m comparing disability policies and employment experiences of young people with visual disabilities. So, his first reaction instantaneously was, “tell me you did not find anything worth comparing? because these countries are so different”.
And, you know, like I was struggling with my chopping of the beef and chewing it, because to be honest it was a gala dinner. But the, the quality of the beef was not the best. [laughter] Steak was not very good, so I’m like, I chewed, chewed over the meat for some time. And then I looked towards him, to Max, and said, “Max Listen. Not only am I comparing these two countries or the disability policies, but I’m also finding similarities. And if you want to know more about this, I’ll be presenting my findings, preliminary findings tomorrow, next day. So why don’t you just come?”
And he came to the presentation, and once when my presentation and the question-and-answer session was over. He asked a question and he said “yesterday I met this young man at the dinner table, and I was quite premature to judge that, oh, you can never compare Norway to India, and you will not find anything worth comparing. And not only has he proven me wrong, but I’m convinced that you can really compare and that’s a fantastic achievement for you, so it’s important to stay curious and open minded” and at the end he said “I want to take a picture of you and post it on the website”. [laughter]
So that was kind of like the whole circle of you know, being dismissed, off the cuff just because of the fact that we don’t hear this topic, or we have not explored the idea of comparing Norway to countries from other part of the globe.
And, yes, I feel that it’s so important to kind of not jump on those conclusions or these prejudicial attitudes which people often have.
It’s better to stay curious, open minded and not indulge into scientific dogmatism.
Hallvard: So, what did you find? Can Norway learn something?
Gagan: What I ended up doing is like I took a [pause].
I try to map the landscape, of the disability policies across northern India from the early 1990s and now, and you know, people would ask why the early 1990s? Why not prior to that? So, the idea was that prior to early 1990s, there were no major regulations, legislations, which protected the rights of persons with disabilities in law.
So, Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990s and that kind of opened the floodgates when it comes to disability inclusion, disability rights, disability justice and disability empowerment.
So, I thought that could be a fine way to start 1990s. I’ll start comparing from that and when I started seeing the policy landscape, you know I immediately understood that it’s very complex. It’s very rich. There are policies which are linked to social benefits.
Like disability pensions (trygd) and their policies linked to social services like user controlled personal assistance.
And then there are policies which are linked to social regulations. For instance, anti-discrimination which talks about, or universal design, or accessibility, which talks about creating a level playing field you know.
It instantaneously dawned on me that I cannot compare Norway and India when it comes to social benefits and social services because these two countries are so different. You know?
One country is, as I mentioned, top of the pyramid on Human Development Index. Extremely Rich, spends 4.3% of its GDP on disability protection and the other country is languishing far below, you know, on human development index.
And spends very miniscule part of its GDP on disability protection for persons with disabilities. So, then I thought, perhaps a nice way it would be to compare social regulations.
These policies linked to anti-discrimination, universal design, accessibility and inclusion. So I started from there and what I found is that, generally, people have an assumption, again, or prejudice or misconception that these policies the anti-discrimination, universal design, disability inclusion are only there in the global north. The rich developed world. Like you find these policies in the US. You’ll find it in Norway. You’ll find it in the UK. But, not in the developing world.
So, one thing which came as shock to, which might come as a shock to many people, is that these policies do exist, albeit on paper, but at least they exist in many developing countries.
The classic example is in India.
Hallvard: One thing is what’s written in law
Hallvard: How is life in real time?
Gagan: Exactly and, and that’s where I said like, OK, let me go to the field, let me dip my toe into the waters of Oslo and Delhi, and ask the young adults with visual impairments what, what are they experiences, with regards to these policies? their implementation? Are they satisfied with it? Like, what kind of barriers do they encounter? And one barrier which kind of stuck out, or which was quite hard for me to comprehend, which specifically in the Norwegian context was the barrier of employer’s discrimination or, or lack of a better word, you could say ableism or disablism. Something which is, which is quite deep rooted, like even employers when they see a young adult with visual impairment, they might have spurious assumptions. Might have negative misconceptions, might harbor prejudices and say “This person. I’m not sure whether he or she can work.”
We support, employers might think that “oh, we support that there must be anti-discrimination norms and legislation. We support that labor markets must be inclusive, but not my organization. For my organization, I’m not sure whether I could include persons with disabilities and specifically young adults with visual impairments.” So that kind of came up and I wrote a research paper called “Turning a blind eye to employers’ discrimination.”
Because I think in the Oslo and Delhi context, what our research shows are that it’s quite hard for young people with visual impairments to enter and excel and succeed if they, if they want to do, want to participate. So that happened and then, of course, I could have stopped my PhD at that point and just said, OK, this is all about, you know, misery and sadness and look at these people’s lives. But that will be only half of the story, right? Because we individuals are having tremendous strength, resilience, capacity, competence, along with our flaws and shortcomings and prejudices and biases. We are, we are a mix of these two things. The blessings and the gifts on one side and the, and the curses and shortcomings on the other.
So, I try to understand from these young people, they had, they were, they were the ones who were educating me that what were the factors which assisted them to enter into employment? Yes, they found a lot of barriers and one of the barriers was discrimination and ableism. But, was there something which helped them? And then they explained to me that of course there were aspects such as, you know, the use of technology which has come, you know?
Screen readers, voice over, competence over those helps in getting into employment. It helps them to cope with the labor market adversity, building network, talking to people, colleagues and friends and trying to explain their case that they want to find employment, they don’t want to be sitting at home getting disability pension in the Norwegian context or in the Indian context. Sitting at home and just rotting by themselves. So building a network helps them to adapt to the labor market barriers.
Also, participating in engaging with disability organizations helps them build their competence. Have a sense of community and belonging and solidarity that they could transform their labor market reality and not just be passive objects. Like this article was something which I really loved writing because it was an article of hope, an article of [short pause]
It was titled “Social Resilience in the labor market”. And that is something which I learned, and it was so enriching from, to hear from, these young people who were, who were active, who were engaged and who wanted to be employed and lead a fulfilling life and not just be forgotten in their apartments and houses.
Hallvard: Oslo, Oslo Metropolitan University. We have in our strategy, our values, we are a diverse university. Is that important to have those written values?
Gagan: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s like that’s like the first very, very important step to write it down in black and white so that you know that document could be referred to like diversity and inclusion and accessibility and universal design and equity. These things are not just buzzwords.
They hold a lot of weight if they are articulated cogently and clearly.
Hallvard: They are. But do they work?
Gagan: That’s the important question. Do they work or not? Because I, I feel that yes, in like, if I can reflect on my PhD journey. I’ve been quite lucky to be here at the Oslo Metropolitan University.
I think it’s quite progressive, it has great systems. I got a lot of assistance. I got a lot of support from many individuals who were my colleagues, who were my mentors. But at the same time there was a lot of resistance to the idea of, first of all, doing such a comparative study between Norway and India. Why should you even do that? What would you get out of it? People, some people took offense, some people dismissed it, some people said to me that, “Gagan, perhaps you are taking too much time to finish your PhD.”
They were not understanding that I am, I have published six research papers.
People get PhDs when they publish one or two research papers, and the rest could be in the process of publication.
And, there’s that element of, we have walked on this path. We know this path pretty well, and we don’t want anybody who deviates from this path.
And that is something quite [short pause]
It’s been a learning process for me at least because again, I could not be more grateful for, to work towards Oslo Met for giving me the opportunity to do this PhD.
At the same time, I feel that there were moments wherein people, lowered their expectations from me. People said that perhaps you should not be worried about writing so many research papers. You should not be focusing on talking about ableism. Talking about disability inclusion.
Why are you bothering to do this?
Because for them, perhaps doing a PhD was just doing a PhD or job. But for me, as I mentioned in the beginning, this was labor of love. It was my passion project. I wanted to give something back to all the individuals who taught me during the PhD.
Who counseled me, who supported me, and also to the institutions who invested so much in me. I think to whom much is given, much is expected. And I was trying to live up to all those expectations.
And yes, diversity is good. It’s great. But often persons with disabilities, and their needs and expectations and aspirations are sidelined.
Because we don’t necessarily center stage that then. Even at Oslo Met, I feel.
Hallvard: Going into your defense here now, finalizing everything, how is that? like, that last run?
Gagan: I was so ecstatic and thankful when the committee members who assessed this PhD thesis, the first sentence was that this is a beautifully written and well-structured thesis. And those words meant so much to me because I had invested so much blood, sweat and tears over the past so many years to reach to this stage.
And I was quite happy. Delighted. Inspired to have an amazing defence and then I posted it on my social media to say “Ees! My public defence is going to happen on June 18th and I will be talking about things such as ableism, social resilience, discrimination, disability policy reforms, rights of persons with disabilities and young people with visual impairments. So, those who want to follow this online proceedings, here is the link.”
And when I posted that I, I got lot of words of encouragement and some people asked me, those who were deaf and hard of hearing, some of my colleagues from Norway, from Washington DC, from Ireland, from other parts of Europe and Japan, Australia.
That, “Will this public defence be inclusive and accessible?”.
And my instantaneous reaction was “of course it’s going to be”, and they were like, “will we have sign language interpreters?”
And I’m like, “Yes. We will have. Why shouldn’t we have?”. Because OsloMet has, prides itself. It’s one of the most diverse, inclusive, accessible Universities. It centers the theme of universal design and inclusion so strongly. So, like yes, of course.
And then I kind of, next day went back and asked my administrators that, yes, I would, I’ve got these requests from deaf and hard of hearing individuals. What can we do like could we make this defence inclusive? And accessible so that everybody could participate.
And then you know it’s this, it’s the same kind of challenge which often comes up that, you know, we have these incredibly inspiring language on diversity on inclusion concerning accessibility and universal design. But to operationalize it, to put words into practice, so that it counts, that’s where the challenge takes place. So I heard back and people said that perhaps, it’s going to be quite expensive to have this sign language interpreters.
Gagan, you are not deaf. If you would be deaf, then of course we would organize sign language interpreters for you. Or, we have never done this, and it might take a lot of time and we don’t have the capacity. We live in the COVID times, so it’ll be very hard.
And when this happened and I was hearing this kind of response a part of me was quite dismayed. And a part of me was quite shocked. Because here I was, talking about ableism and inclusion, and accessibility, and barriers, and social resilience in my thesis, and people want to follow these topics. They want to listen or understand, or [pause] the perspectives from Norway and India and, I am in this university which is so, which prides itself on diversity and inclusion and accessibility issues.
And I’m still encountering these challenges.
So then of course I [pause] I tried to explain the case as clearly as possible, that this is possible to do. I reached out to my deaf and hard of hearing friends in Norway, and asked them what could be the course. Could they book the sign language interpreters on my behalf?
I talked to the rector of the Oslo Metropolitan University, Curt. And explained in the situation and Curt was, has always been quite generous and gracious with his time and his input. And he explained or escalated the issue, and now the issue is resolved and then we would be having sign language interpreters and it’s a great sense of relief for me. Because, I would like to walk the talk. Because, if OsloMet and I, we cannot walk the talk on, on this issue of inclusion and accessibility for the public defence, then we are, then there’s a mess. Yes, and it has been a very, overwhelming experience to be, to be overjoyed by the, by the amazing response for my PhD thesis. Quite unexpected, quite nice to listen to the response.
But at the same time, you know the road to inclusion is, is long, it’s arduous, it’s winding. There are lot of barriers which comes every single turn. But it’s so important to, to carry on, to not give up or give in and say [pause]
And, and have allies who support you. Cheer for you, because that’s so important to have, because if it would be just for me to do it, perhaps I would not be able to finish the PhD in first place if I would have just been fighting all the barriers or all the challenges, which were over and above the PhD. Because, doing a PhD for person with disability is, it’s, it’s a bit different for from other individuals because there a lot of unanticipated barriers. As I just understood about persons with, who are deaf or hard of hearing, individuals who want to follow my public defense, yeah.
Hallvard: Gagan, before we end this talk here, you taught me a new word “ableism”. We did a podcast about that so I will point people there for the, for the in depth talk about that, but. Why don’t you want me to look at you as a blind superhero who did a PhD? Wow, that’s impressive.
Gagan: Persons with disabilities have often been seen either as objects of charity; we have looked down upon them. Or we have looked up to them and said they are inspiring heroes, so, tragic victims or inspiring heroes. But we often fail to look straight into them, their eyes and say, “yeah, you are the same, similar kind of person as I am. You are a bundle of all those amazing qualities, but also you are a basket of all the deplorable flawed prejudices.”
It’s, it’s a very hard question, I feel, because I would want the society to be more inclusive. I would want the society to be less ableist, and I would want people to look, appreciate, celebrate, cherish the common humanity of all of us, but it’s just such a hard task. And we cannot just be in the mode of fighting and solving problems, and circumnavigating barriers and educating people if you are just in the process of doing that all the time, then when do we live?
We persons with disabilities have a right to live as well, right?
To enjoy life. To participate fully. To lead a fulfilling, meaningful, existence.
I was not born to explain to a passerby that, “listen, this action which you are doing? When you are objectifying me as an inspiring superhero? Is an ableist thing.”
Because if I’m expected to do that at every single turn, life is already so complicated. How many more barriers should I be talking about?
It’s so important to sometimes just BE. And not be in this activistic mode or educative mode. It’s quite taxing. It has, this PhD. journey has taken a huge toll on me personally, my health wise, my, my relationships, my peace of mind.
But, the thing which has pushed me on forward is the tremendous amount of support by so many people, from so different walks of life, who have said that we hear what you are saying. We understand what you are doing. We wish you the best, and tell me how could I contribute you to move one inch forward?
And that is so crucial, to underscore and accentuate. Because if it’s just for one individual, it’s not possible.
It’s a very overwhelming task to educate the people around you. To fight the accessibility barriers. To write your PhD. To organize for assistance.
It is a very overwhelming experience.
So, I think that we, at least in Norway, have the tremendous opportunity to have a dialogue on ableism. To put it into the public consciousness, so that when people are judging other people, which they do because they want to categorize individuals into boxes. All of us do that.
At least they would be more generous and keep some space in that box, so that if the person is not fitting in the box of a tragic victim or an inspiring hero, he or she could come out of it as a common regular normal quote unquote, human being.
So I think it’s, it’s exceedingly important to stress that. That life is already very complicated, and for persons with disabilities there are, there are additional barriers which they encounter for doing the most basic and the banal things in life.
And, they also have a right to just live, participate, and enjoy life.
And not be, quote unquote, disability rights advocate, or quote unquote, disability rights activist, or quote unquote, disability rights scholars who is always educating and explaining and clarifying, and coercing, and controlling individuals to be inclusive.
Hallvard: Gagan, Congratulations! I know this is, I’m supposed to say this after your defense on the 18th, but I’m going to say it now. Congratulations with a fantastic job.
It’s been a privilege to be talking to you about this project, and I know this is not the last time because I know you’re going to continue this important work, but I wish you some days off.
You need a long summer vacation Gagan.
Gagan: You’re spot on Hallvard. Thank you so much. I think it’s it has been such a pleasure to interact with you, to share my perspectives. And you have been a wonderful person to interact with because you have, you’ve had this open mindedness to listen to these perspectives. You have encouraged me, and I really appreciate the opportunity and I just said, I hope that we, we meet up again and have many more enlightening conversations. And you are invited on 18th June to participate in the Public difference, which is going to be inclusive, accessible and amazing!
Thank you Hallvard, thank you.
Hallvard: Thank you very much Gagan. And for everybody who’s interested in all these topics we’ve been talking about, Gagan’s articles and everything, go to our show notes and we will link up to absolutely everything there, so you can have a nice read about all the interesting stuff that you’ve been writing.
Gagan: Thank you.
Hallvard: Have a really good summer.
Gagan: Thank you.