The Price of Pity

I just got back from the E3 Challenge Awards, an award ceremony to inspire self-reliance among NGOs that work in the disability sector. My company, Start Up!, partnered with ARUNIM, a market aggregator of products made by mentally and physically disabled people in order to create the competition. The speeches made by many of the winners and judges were fascinating. They really hit home on the point that “specially abled” peopled are just as capable of creating beautiful products if given the opportunity.

After the ceremony, they had a reception where many of the specially abled folks displayed their wares. Indeed they were beautiful and I wasted no time in finding things I wanted to purchase. At one stall, I asked a man with cerebral¬† palsy how much a hair gel product cost. After roping in a few people as translators (apparently my basic Hindi was slightly too basic), I found out that he wanted to give me the product free since it was only half full. Somehow I felt bad taking the sample and so I decided to purchase a Rs 45 bottle of aloe vera–figuring that my pale skin would need it soon enough. I didnt have change so I handed him Rs 100 and gestured for him to keep the change. His gnarled hands became agitated and I stood there confused, wondering if the price was more than I thought. Finally, it became clear: he didn’t want to keep the change. Unwittingly, I had just fallen into the pity trap that all of the speakers had warned against; even if unknowingly there was a part of me that wanted him to keep the change because of his disability. Eventually I got my change and walked away thinking about how sometimes its all to easy to believe in “dignified livelihoods” and other such buzzwords without actually living them.