Neelam’s Story:  A Quest for a Better Quality of Life

My name is Neelam. I moved to the United States from India with my family in 1994. I was an 11-year-old kid beaming with hope because I was moving to a country that is a bastion of civil rights for people with disabilities. Many immigrants who move to the U.S. come for a better quality of life.

Education and Financial Independence

I wanted to come here for formal education, which I never received in India. I believed that education was a necessary, basic human right for everyone. But that is not how people in many parts of the world think. As a person with a disability, I feel very fortunate to live here. My biggest passion in life has been education because I know that through schooling, I can grow up to be independent financially. I was always taught that without education I could not obtain employment with a livable wage, which means I would have to rely on government or family assistance.

If You Can Do It, So Can I

Because I have a disability, I could not grow up to be independent like everyone else my age without education. I do not want to rely on government assistance my whole life and not all families are financially capable of supporting their children into their adulthood and one should not expect that. I always wanted to live on my own once I turned 18, go off to college, graduate, and ultimately get a job that will help me become independent and take care of myself. If able-bodied people can do it, so can I. That was always my attitude. This does not mean I did not face any challenges in life but I grew up in a very supportive and loving family. I would not be where I am today without them. My path to academics was not a smooth one. Let me tell you a little about my journey from India to USA and how I got where I am today and why education is so important to me.

Access and Accommodations

India did not have any accessible schools for people with disabilities. My parents did everything they could in their power to get me enrolled in schools. However, schools either rejected my admission or informed my parents that the staff will absolutely take no responsibility in caring for me, or in accommodating me. I would have no basic civil rights. If I wanted to go to a restroom, that would not be possible since there is no such a thing as an accessible bathroom. There would be no aids to assist me and the school curriculum would not be tailored to my needs, although I also have a learning disability and I was really behind all the kids. There were some schools which were far away from home that took people with disabilities. My parents took me for a day and stayed with me the whole time. The school was in a deplorable condition. There were kids with all kinds of disabilities (mental, physical, developmental) all mixed together. They just played with toys the whole time; they were not receiving any academic education, and were in terrible condition. They were crawling and crying. My parents were appalled and decided they would just home-school me to the best of their ability but they would never send me to a place like that.

A Life with Dignity and Respect

My parents instilled the value of education in me from infancy. They never subscribed to the cultural belief that as a girl with a disability, I had nothing to offer (though to be fair not everyone in India thinks in such a narrow-minded way). My parents had high expectations and believed in me. They pushed me to get an education and it was decided very early on that I would attend college. And I wanted nothing more. My parents felt that it was especially important for me to fulfill my highest potential in education, so the outcome could result in gainful employment. They taught me very early on that they will always be loving and very supportive of me. They will never give up on me; however, they won’t be around forever. My parents understood that by instilling the value of education, self-advocacy and independence from infancy, not only would they help me live a life with dignity and respect, but I would be able to survive and thrive on my own, without family help or government assistance.

Resources and Opportunities

While we continue to make progress for people with disabilities, we should continue to take advantage of all the resources and opportunities this country offers. I understand everyone has a different kind of disability and abilities of that person may vary, and that not all programs may be suitable for everyone. But one cannot give up and lose hope. If you truly want something and believe in something, it can be achieved.   The expectation has to come first, and then success will follow.

About the Author

Photo of Neelam Dhadankar
Neelam Dhadankar

Neelam is a graduate student at the University of WI-Madison and an intern at the Department of Health Services (DHS) where she’s part of an Employment Initiatives team.
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