The matter of a different mind

Pooja Sharma from Gurugram, along with two of her friends, signed up for the Mongol Rally, an international car rally across 30 countries, in July this year.
Pooja Sharma at Mandø, Denmark
Pooja Sharma at Mandø, Denmark

DL 8CBF 2666. A car with a Delhi number plate is cruising through the serene countryside and bustling cities of Europe. One day it is parked somewhere in Munich, on another, it is riding through Georgia’s capital Tbilisi.

A wonderfully cheeky sticker in Hindi reads: “Hans mat pagle, pyar ho jayega” (Don’t laugh, idiot, you’ll fall in love). Its passengers are three middle-aged women from Delhi, who are having a Zindagi-Na-Milegi- Dobara moment—but they are on a mission.

Pooja Sharma from Gurugram, along with two of her friends, signed up for the Mongol Rally, an international car rally across 30 countries, in July this year. For Sharma, 43, it was a road trip long postponed, but now she was here for a cause.

Sharma with the Naina doll at
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Sharma founded The Sarvodya Collective, a nonprofit organisation that works towards building “informed, enabling and inclusive” communities around persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (PwIDD), in 2021.

Apart from the “Indian bumper sticker”, as she calls it, the blue-grey car is spotted with stickers of the organisation’s message to the world, about joining hands to make it a “neuro-inclusive” place, an “#InclusiveDuniya”. The collective aims to address the lack of resources, funding and engagement in the neuro-divergent space.

The rally across Europe was a part of this larger awareness project, with Sharma meeting with various organisations and individuals working in the area of neuro- divergence across countries, developments of which were streamed through and posted on the organisation’s Instagram page.

“Unlike other disabilities, intellectual disabilities are hard to explain to common people because it is not generally visible,” says Sharma. She, however, found out about the conflicts and complications faced by people of the community early on in life. Her older brother has an intellectual disability.

“Growing up, I realised the difference in the access to opportunities I and my brother had in life. It has always bothered me,” she says about leaving behind a successful corporate career in finance to raise awareness about intellectual disabilities. The work is personal also because her mother was a special educator as well. The pandemic exposed the urgent need for addressing a gap with regard to public and governmental engagement with the PwIDD cause.

Talking disability
“Education as such had a lot of support at the time. The government was talking about learning apps. But nobody thought how the pandemic situation would affect PwIDD,” she says. Conversations around the time also revealed to her that even well-meaning people did not care much because they had little to no understanding about the issue.

“One can explain that Down Syndrome is a chromosomal disorder or how muscle dystonia occurs, but facts and figures mean very little to a common person. They want to know what they can do about it,” she says. Sharma works to take the cause mainstream. She has interesting ways of doing it as well. Naina’s Inclusive Duniya is an Instagram page run by the collective; it frequently posts comics on the topic of disabilities that people, especially children, can relate with.

A training session at Rajkiya Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, West Vinod Nagar, Delhi
A training session at Rajkiya Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, West Vinod Nagar, Delhi

The character of Naina is a neuro-typical girl who has a motley crew of friends with various disabilities. “The stories showcase simple ways in which you can show up, be a friend, an ally, in your daily life. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture,” Sharma explains. Naina accompanied Sharma on her road trip across Europe as well.

Thirty little Naina dolls, which Sharma gifted to people and little girls she met along the way, are in 30 different countries. One of them was left at the foot of a cross at Finisterre, Spain, after Sharma walked the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrims’ path for three days, “hoping those who find it will usher in a more inclusive world”, she wrote on Instagram.

Volunteers welcome
The collective conducts reading circles where groups of preteen and teen students come together with a volunteer-facilitator and engage in conversations about the comics and the topic of disability. The website also offers resources on the topic, including original reports and writings. It also partners with other organisations and individuals working in the field.

Collaborations with established organisations such as the Down Syndrome Federation of India (DSFI) is, for Sharma, a testament to the effectiveness of the medium of comics, which is accessible and comprehensive at the same time. She mentions how several cartoonists on Instagram have practically normalised the topic of mental health.

“The work the collective does gives me a lot of hope and confidence,” says Keerthana Vinod of Bengaluru, who is mother to a 6-year-old girl who’s on the autism spectrum. “They help in bringing up informed and open-minded children who could be good companions to our kids.” Vinod has been volunteering for the collective in Bengaluru for over three years now.

Comics aside, the collective also works with schools and corporates to establish inclusive classrooms and workspaces. It has an ongoing association with The Sri Ram School and is also collaborating with Teach for India, in working with their fellows who teach at government schools across Delhi.

From a car rally and Insta comics to gifting Naina dolls to little girls across Europe, Gurugram’s Pooja Sharma is spreading awareness about intellectual disabilities through her collective. Inclusivity does not need grand gestures, she says.

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The New Indian Express