Lending Open Ears and Hearts

Jacob Sirk-Traugh

Today we interviewed Shri Narender Paul, Chief Operating Officer of the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD). CORD is an organization focused on uplifting communities in rural India in a variety of ways. One of their main strategies is to bring autonomy to rural India by teaching those in poverty employable or entrepreneurial skills. By doing this, rural communities become self reliant and are lifted out of poverty. Additionally, CORD helps form large women’s groups within their villages which can help with education and literacy, domestic violence, supporting children, offering microloans, helping with disabilities, and much more. One thing that struck me during the interview was when he told us how pursuing a career based in helping others allowed him to find purpose and to stop being a “confused teenager.” Additionally, he was talking about how he has realized that because humans are so interdependent on each other, you can’t just take from society, you have to give something back. This led to my first major takeaway from this interview which was that helping others is always beneficial to oneself and that it is a spiritual necessity to give back. 

Because he joined CORD as an occupational therapist, Shri Narender Paul is passionate about disability issues. He believes that solving these issues is about more than just the solution, but about the people involved. The most important thing, in his opinion, is making sure that the disabled are not viewed as a burden or charity cases, but active members of their economy and society. This really struck me because disability issues are so often thought about from the perspective that these people are a burden to be dealt with at the cost of some resources. In reality, it is not only morally correct, but also economically prudent to support disabled people to participate wholly in society. This interview really made me think about the power of anti-disability stigmas. 

CORD utilizes many unique strategies in the development of rural India. Because India is such a diverse place, cultural pushback or misunderstandings can happen. When asked about this, Sri Narender Paul told us that they avoid this issue by educating and providing training to people native to the community they are trying to help. This helps overcome many language and cultural barriers. Additionally, because the people suffering from a specific issue are the most involved in solving that issue, there isn’t a lack of understanding of what the problem actually is and unwanted solutions are not imposed on communities. Understanding these strategies has helped me understand why CORD is such a widespread and successful organization, as well as proving to me that to attain long term solutions, you must directly include the community members as the agents of change.

Zoey Ocampo-Sobkoviak

Before our interview with Shri Narender Paul, the COO of the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD), we took a tour of the facilities that are used for education, different forms of therapy for local people with disabilities, and the facilitation of artisanship. We also watched a video that detailed the mission of CORD: to help rural communities in India and Southeast Asia empower themselves through education, political action, emotional support, and entrepreneurship. The organization’s main site is located amidst the snaking roads of the Himalayan Foothills in Himachal Pradesh. CORD was founded by Dr. Kshama Metre in 2003, inspired by an earlier program developed by Swami Chinmayananda in 1985.

Though it was a bit difficult to find information on Dr. Paul in the research and question formulation process before coming into the interview, many of our questions landed well and led to thorough and insightful answers. During this research and brainstorming stage, I found information on his involvement in fighting against ableism in India through therapeutic services and other forms of advocacy. Ableism is a large issue in both India and the United States and doesn’t seem to get the media attention as other systems of oppression. There are religious and cultural differences in the way this system is propagated between our two countries, however, the lack of visibility for people with disabilities, violence and hatred toward them, and a general attitude of burden or pity are common to both places.

I asked Dr. Paul what he finds to be the most significant challenges to changing people’s perceptions about disability rights in India. In that moment, I saw his body language shift, as this was an issue he was clearly passionate about. He shared with us that there are significant challenges of religious and social stigma in rural communities, but the real problem lies within the educated, urban population of India that generally still holds unconscious biases against people with disabilities. This is because those biases are much harder to combat. CORD works to provide resources for physically and intellectually disabled people and their families (especially from poor, rural backgrounds) in a way that involves them in the decision making processes. At one point in his explanation, Dr. Paul asked, “why should people with disabilities be seen as the objects of pity and charity, instead of being seen as valuable contributors to society?” In alignment with this inquiry, he shared that CORD offers spaces for people with different disabilities to create their own enterprises through the arts and seek support from others with similar experiences. After he asked that question, I leaned forward more in my chair, because I could see that this problem really mattered to him, and not because he operated from a place of pity or ego, but because he had a great deal of empathy and believed that everyone has value and deserves to live their lives with purpose and dignity.

He also mentioned that for a long time the option to count yourself as a person with disabilities in the census was non-existent in India. However, CORD and other organizations have fought to represent a variety of disabled people in the Indian census, so that there is a wider availability of data about disabilities which creates a ripple effect of representation and the dismantling of outdated narratives.

Even in our society in the United States, where social justice and disability rights are garnering more attention, many of us that don’t have a disability still struggle to understand that our good-intentions and misplaced pity are not enough to change our ableist actions and thoughts. Language and information is powerful, therefore, we should not erase the struggle that disabled people face in spaces that are created with able-bodied people in mind by saying that they are “differently abled” or ignore the importance of collecting data about the diversity of disabilities and the amount of people that have them. 

To return to the reflections from our interview with MMS and Sri Ram Ashram alumna Soma Sharan, developing a more equitable future for everyone is not achieved through ego-driven, patronizing forms of philanthropy (economic or otherwise), it is achieved by lending our open ears and hearts to those who are impacted by the trauma of systemic oppression in order to find solutions that actually benefit us all.