Freedom from societal shackles

Artist Naveen Daniel questions hierarchy, discriminations, and the stereotypical notions in his art works while advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities and the queer community
Freedom from societal shackles

CHENNAI: Sakkarangal saabam-alla suthanthiram” (Wheelchair is not a curse but freedom), writes Naveen Daniel, an activist and artist, in his diary. These words are accompanied by a drawing of a person sitting in a black wheelchair, blue side guards, orange dots denoting eyes, and a straight line to be a mouth. “It was my first attempt at drawing after schooling. Some 20 years later, I drew that in Google notes,” says Naveen, who works with watercolours and dabbles in digital art.

Motivated by his friends and family members, Naveen an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, eductes people on Instagram about the community and disability. He says, “To know about disability and the community, one should learn from the people who belong and not others.”

In 2000, when Naveen was in class 3, he started developing symptoms of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) when he was at school. Following this, he was not included in physical education, karate, and dance classes, for the next two years of his schooling. Sitting in his class, alone, Naveen took to art practice. “Art helped me express my anger and energy,” he says.

This ritual of indulging in art gradually decreased as the pain intensified with each passing day, which “limited” his physical movements. He was in class 5 then. “My parents took me to various doctors who promised that I would be cured and that all of this is temporary,” says Naveen. He adds that his parents believe in god and they would read to him the verses from the holy Bible.

Frequent journeys to hospitals and places of worship led to increased movement constraints with no remedy and no sign of betterment. This difficult phase was also during the time when the Internet was evolving, and it turned out to be a boon for Naveen. He took inspiration from the work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and started equipping himself with knowledge of art, disability movements, and politics among others. Naveen eventually began using the platform to voice his opinions and upload his artwork.

His social media journey is filled with life lessons and the art practice through which he lives his life.

A powerful medium

Naveen’s first words read, “… enaku karpikkapatta mathathin punitha nool muluka pala vithamana ableist karuthugal irukum (The religious holy book I was taught has various comments on ableism)… appadi thinikapatta sapiengalin manathil irundhu sathiyum, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, misogyny ponra anaithu aanigalaiyum pudungum paniyil ennal mudindhadhai thodarndhu seiven (With these teaching, caste, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and misogyny are drilled into the hearts of sapiens, I will do my best to remove all such hindrances).” Holding this message, he has been writing since 2020, and today, he actively uploads his words and photos on social media, educating people on disability.

“Instagram is an application where you upload photos and give a caption. But on Facebook, you can write what’s on your mind and that will show on your feed,” shares Naveen. So, to post his writings and thoughts, he started uploading pictures of himself. “A person with disability usually hides the fact that they are disabled. I was also one such. All this is because of our society,” he says. This conditioning starts from home; parents do not involve their child with disability in any activity and confine them to rooms. To break this barrier and let people with disability be themselves, Naveen uploads pictures sitting on his wheelchair or bed. Seeing this, his friends and people who follow him are encouraged to show the world the reality. He recalls an instance when his friend sent him a picture of a decorated wheelchair for Halloween.

Advocating through art

Advocating his ideas through his art, Naveen says, “The change in terms from oonamuttror (handicapped/disabled) to maatru thiranaali (differently-abled) is offensive. These words have come in legal documents and regular communication because of Western influence,” he shares. Naveen terms these words as “inspiration porn”. “There is a system and an idea that makes people pity the disabled. There is a thought that only when a person with disability is productive, will they be accepted in society, and this belief and understanding are normalised. Only when the word disabled is reclaimed, the notion will change,” he points out.

These traditional systems need to be revisited and revised. To do so, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, should be implemented, he says. Under this law, a section mentions the importance of subtitles. “This law has the much-needed awareness about and accessibility to people with disability,” says Naveen.“There is an ongoing serial in Vijay TV that enables subtitles for dialogues. People mock this action. They do not understand and are unaware that deaf people can watch this serial too if subtitles are added,” he shares.

There are still many changes that India as a country could make to impact the lives of the disabled, rather than just on paper. On the ground level, Naveen uses his art and knowledge from reading various books and watching documentaries to spread awareness. With 50-odd members, a forum — A11ygators, a numeronym for accessibility — is created. They meet weekly once to talk about disability, politics, book reading sessions, and at times a support group.

In May, at one of their GMeet gatherings, a session on arthritis was conducted. The team plans to conduct an in-person event this month. Details of the event will be announced in the next get-together.

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