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Patchworker Spotlight: Puneet’s story
Puneet Singh Singhal is a Disability Inclusion and Accessibility Advocate, and the Founder of ssstart. We recently spoke with Puneet to find out more about his story, his motivation for the work that he does, and his thoughts on disability equality.
To start, could you please tell us about yourself?
My name is Puneet Singh Singhal and I’m from New Delhi, India. I’m a person with an undiagnosed learning disability and stammering. I see my life as the intersection of poverty, domestic violence, and multiple invisible disabilities. I’m a disability activist advocating for a more inclusive and accessible society for people with different and distinct, visible, and invisible disabilities. I’m also the founder of a non-profit called ssstart, working towards normalizing speech and communication disabilities, mainly stammering.
Can you tell us a bit more about your story?
As a little child in New Delhi, life was beautiful. I remember when I started my schooling, it was so much fun learning English and Hindi alphabets, mathematics, and drawing. I used to recite prayers and sing the national anthem in the school assembly. In classes, I was the one who read the mathematics table aloud as my classmates repeated after me.
But then everything changed when I witnessed violence among adults for the first time. I felt wounded and yet so numb that I used to stand in one place for hours without having a single thought. I found myself in shackles. Before, I was scared to sit in the dark, but at this point, I found refuge in darkness. I stopped communicating. When I was asked a question, my words didn’t come out.
The school stage that used to be my comfort zone changed into a battlefield. One day, the whole class started to stammer “gu-gu-gu-good morning,” and I realized that they were mocking me. My classmates and their parents even complained to the principal that I could be a bad influence and make all of them stammerers. My mother couldn’t believe that her son, whose tongue was as fast as a train and sharp as a razor, was struggling with his speech! Being subject to constant mocking, I completely lost my confidence.
I used different strategies to ease my stammering: finding alternatives for words I generally got stuck on, reducing my statements to a minimum, or arriving late to avoid introducing myself. When people tried to help by asking me to slow down or by finishing my sentences, it made me even more self-conscious. And then there were these weird and rather dangerous pieces of advice like licking ashes of cremated bodies or rubbing alum on the tongue until the upper layer was removed.
Looking back, my childhood was not easy, but do I regret having a stammer? No. It made me a more sensitive human being. I feel connected with all who are unable to express their thoughts and are longing to be understood.
Witnessing violence in my personal surroundings shook me and took me to an island of isolation and loneliness. I changed from a child who loved to be in the spotlight to a stammering, timid boy who tried to avoid conversation. Today, I embrace my special style of communication, and I dream to set free those who experience real barriers to communicating fluently.
Have you faced any workplace barriers due to your situation? Do you think the ‘conventional’ world of work most employers use needs to change?
The impact at work depends on the culture of the organisation/area of business we work for. The more value-based and ethically literate the place is, the better the conditions. For example, many HR staff with whom I disclosed my stammering replied that they also stammer occasionally. An occasional stammer is not the same as a diagnosis of stammering at the clinical level. While this may be well-intentioned, it undermines the extent of the struggle experienced by someone with a stammer. Societal change needs to occur so we can:
- Create a general culture of respect and ethical literacy.
- Change opinions so people don’t think that dysfluency is a sign of low intellectual capabilities.
- Have zero tolerance for bullying by co-staff, HR, and even seniors to the person who stammers.
- Promote stammering voices to speak in public, if they are willing, to raise awareness and normalize speech differences. This is only possible if there is trust and mutual respect.
If you could change one thing about the world of work or the way employers saw accessibility, what would it be and why?
Accessibility improves the life of all.
What inspired you to start doing the work you currently do?
My life with poverty, domestic violence, and multiple disabilities drive me to change the lives of other people like me. No matter how small the change is, I’m immensely self-motivated and I do not feel the need to get motivated by an external source. My life is inspirational enough to fuel me up to keep working day in and day out.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from your career to date?
Disability is diverse. There are many vastly different disability issues, all equally important but some are covered and talked about more than others. From ramps to sign language and employment opportunities to healthcare, there is a wide range of issues to think about which makes it difficult to prioritize. This then causes millions of people with disabilities to feel ignored or sidelined, almost like there’s a hierarchy within the disability community. Although the communities and organizations are committed to full inclusion, on ground levels, we are struggling to live up to these ideals. For example, the divide between physical disabilities and mental or cognitive disabilities is pretty evident. Moreover: race, gender, sexuality, education, wealth, and other identities also play a huge role in generating strong division amongst disability communities.
Do you have a favourite quote or personal mantra?
“There is nothing impossible in all the world except that the heart of man is wanting in resolution” — Confucius.
If you could change one thing about people's perception of disability, what would it be?
Disability is not a punishment, it is difference. We add to the diversity.
Find out more about Puneet’s story and work:
Published: 8th December 2022
- accessibility ramps
- cognitive disabilities
- disability community
- domestic violence
- employment opportunities
- intellectual capabilities
- invisible disabilities
- invisible disability
- learning disability
- New Delhi
- physical disabilities
- public speaking
- Puneet Singh Singhal
- senior staff
- sign language
- speech differences
- work environment
- working conditions
- Spotlight stories
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