I Was Laughed At For My Disability, Until I Became A UN Volunteer

By Rupmani Chhetri, International UN Volunteer

This story was originally posted at the Youth Ki Awaaz website and is posted here with permission.

A woman is seated at her desk with a computer in front of her. She is looking toward the camera.
Rupmani Chhetri is the first deaf woman to be a United Nations volunteer in the Ukraine.

Today I am the first deaf woman selected to move to Ukraine as an international United Nations (UN) Volunteer for one whole year. And I am the same deaf woman who people in my village once laughed at.

My Childhood

I was born in Nepal, and when I was six months old, I moved to Darjeeling because my father was working there. All members of my family are hearing, and I am the only one who is deaf. My poor parents could not afford to send me to study. They are uneducated but they always tried to understand my needs and did what they could.

My struggle started right from my childhood. When I tried to express myself using self-acquired sign language, people in my village thought the way I used sign language was like a ‘mad person’. They laughed. I was afraid. And I lived my life with this constant fear. I was unable to find my identity among the people who thought I was different. In fact, they thought that I was lesser than them. I knew nothing about sign language then.

My Life in Delhi, India

When I was 22, I moved to Delhi. That was the first time I saw the deaf community. People in the capital city knew a common sign language and were able to communicate with each other using it. I tried to learn it. I met so many deaf people there. For the first time in life, I found people who would understand me, my story, and my struggles. There were some people who hated me. I don’t know why. But it didn’t matter. I was determined to learn sign language. I was determined to help others like me who waited for years to see even one ray of hope. That’s where my life found new meaning. My journey had started.

Volunteering with the UN

A woman stands inside a large circle with 17 colors, each representing one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She also holds a box with the same SDG logo and the slogan "The Global Goals for Sustainable Development".
Rupmani Chhetri taught UN staff to sign the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here, she poses with the SDG logo. The SDGs represent goals in reducing poverty and improving health around the world.

As the first deaf Indian woman volunteering with the UN, the opportunity I was given in Ukraine had a life-changing impact on me. I worked towards spreading awareness about disability rights. I traveled across Europe, and exchanged experiences between India and Ukraine; between the East and the West.

Today I know International Sign Language, British Sign Language, Indian Sign Language, America Sign Language, and basic Ukrainian Sign Language. Through learning all of these, I improved my skills and got the confidence I deserved. And I came back to India to support Indian deaf people.

Deaf People in India

In West Europe, I saw how all public places are accessible to people with disabilities. But it is a sad picture here in India. My motherland, unfortunately, is not accessible for everyone. I went to a museum last month and could find no one to help a deaf person understand the precious history of the place. I felt hurt to the core. When will India wake up? When will India be empathetic towards people with disabilities? I have been to many meetings, conferences where no one cared to assign an interpreter. Yes, we cannot hear. That doesn’t mean we cannot understand. An interpreter knowing a sign language is all we need.

Here I must mention that events by Youth Ki Awaaz were really empathetic and inclusive. There were interpreters, and it is thanks to YKA that some citizens didn’t feel left out. The rest of India should follow this example.

Inclusion for Deaf People

Inclusion is important. It is a necessity, not a privilege. More awareness is needed to give the deaf community quality education, access to universities, and open up colleges to women with disabilities. Indian women with disabilities, including deaf women, need opportunities, to study, and to work. We need social leadership programmes for young people with disabilities. We also need Indians who aspire to understand social issues and bring change to come forward.

Trying, and Trying Again

Two large television screens side by side show a woman standing next to a computer screen with the word "HELLO" printed on it in large letters.
Rupmani Chhetri taught International signs to about 25 to 30 UN staff in Ukraine and Germany. Here, she is ready to teach her Germany students via remote video while based in Ukraine.

Currently, I am studying in Subharti University in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, and looking out for jobs. There are people who don’t even care to reply to the emails sent by a deaf person. Isn’t it the general perception to doubt that a deaf girl can be useful in any way?

One day, I was watching a spider walking on the wall, but falling down repeatedly. It was after seven or eight failed attempts that it finally reached its destination. And here I am doing the same. Just a little push, a word of motivation, and equal opportunity is my right.
I appeared for an interview with a well known development sector organisation, but they rejected me. What is annoying is that they said they would reply with their decision but they didn’t.

Apart from making my dreams come true, I need to pay my bills and rent as well! It is becoming increasingly difficult for me, and all I ask for is a little help.

Don’t We All Deserve a Change?

I salute late Sir Javed Abidi, an Indian activist who served as the director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in India, and the founder of the Disability Rights Group in Delhi. I promised him I would one day work for the Centre. He hugged me when I left India for Ukraine and blessed me.

The truth is, whatever I try to do, to bring a change, I have realised one thing: we have to change our mentality, our habits, and our actions. A little empathy can change the whole scenario for deaf people in India. Dear readers, don’t we all deserve a change? Isn’t it high time?

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really: Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it, so go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that’s where you will find success.” – Thomas J. Watson Jr.

Videos about Rupmani Chhetri

Interested in learning more about Rupmani Chhetri and her work as a UN volunteer? Here are two videos to watch. In these videos, Rupmani Chhetri signs in international sign language and Indian Sign Language. Each video also has subtitles in English.

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