A person with a disability has the right to choose, to desire and to have anything he or she wants. With this idea in mind, Soumita Basu‘s efforts have added pleasure, beauty, and aesthetics to the lives of people with disabilities. Founder and the owner of Zyenika, she has been designing adaptive wears for people with physical challenges, needs and disabilities to make their lives easy and fashionable. In conversation with SheThePeople.TV, Basu speaks on how society needs to create a space for the differently-abled to flourish.
Can you reflect upon the moment when you realized a need for adaptive clothing for people who cannot wear regular clothes?
I think our understanding and thinking is not so open to providing space to people with disabilities. The society, especially in India, does not think in a heterogeneous way.
I started facing the problem myself. I was able-bodied until I was 30-31 years old. And then it became progressively more difficult for me. By the time I was 34, I could not wear normal clothes anymore and that’s when I realized the need for adaptive clothes. I started looking for them but I could not find any. If some were available, they were difficult to access. I have done a lot of online research on adaptive clothing. And then I started interacting with people who were disabled and realized that a lot of people face the same problem and need a similar kind of a solution. That’s what got me interested in it.
What would one find at Zyenika?
Zyenika means a female hawk who characterizes elegance and perseverance and I think all the clothes should be elegant and have perseverance in the sense that the designs should be thought through. I communicate with my clients and try to understand their needs. I design made to order clothes. Availability of clothes doesn’t arise. Since I co-create the designs, I always sketch out a design and the client can give further suggestions on it. Hence, I am able to design clothes according to the different requirements of people. It mainly has items of clothing for women but I also design for men. I have assisted wears in all categories, including senior citizens. And there is independent wear in senior citizen category as well. Most of my experience has been largely women’s dresses but I have also started making clothes for children with cerebral palsy, autism and other physical and mental disability.
In fact, we are working on a new project on designing adaptive inner wears for women with a disability and would be first in India to do so. The first aim of Zyenika is to offer comfort and make that comfort beautiful. Through adaptive clothes, I want people to be more independent, to be able to wear clothes without any assistance. Adaptive clothes will make their lives much easier in that aspect. Adaptive items of clothing are for the wearers sure, but it is also a blessing for the caregiver.
Why do you think there are very few designers that make adaptive clothes?
I think our understanding and thinking is not so open to providing space to people with disability. The society, especially in India, does not think in a heterogeneous way. There is no inclusive infrastructure to include people with disabilities. It is also because of a lack of proper education. We are sent to schools where diversity is hard to come by. Schools not only have a physical uniform but also mental and social uniform saying that we are all same. The moment someone becomes disabled, they are sent somewhere else. There are separate schools for students who have a physical disability. So when we grow up we do not know how to think about people who might be different. We are all very different from each other but we have been boxed into difficult categories. That’s the reason why no one really thinks about such designs.
As a differently-abled woman, what stereotypes and discrimination have you faced in your personal life? How did you deal with them?
I often say that a woman with a disability has two disabilities, one that is a physical one and the other based on gender. But that is the way how you are treated as if you are not good enough. There is a certain similarity in how every woman is treated. At work, there is always pressure to prove themselves to be as good as or, as professional and sincere as men. It is not fair how women are never considered better than men. A similar thing happens with people, and not only women, with disabilities. People with disabilities have to do more work in less time just to prove that they are better than able-bodied people.
As a woman entrepreneur, I have seen how people doubt women’s ability to maintain accounts but never question men regarding this. Besides, it’s a stereotype that women either do not know how to start a business or if they do, they work in small scale businesses that do not have large employment opportunities. That is the stereotype that has to be challenged.
How can your idea of adaptive clothing stretch further to adapt the society for differently-abled?
One thing I have always kept in mind is that the clothes should be so beautiful to look at and aesthetically interesting that even the able-bodied would like to wear. I am lucky that my clients want my adaptive clothing more. Probably people will understand that you don’t have to do something special for people who have any specific physical or emotional needs that only they can use. It can be used by everybody, as the ramps for the wheelchairs that can be used by every person. You just need to broaden your horizon and include them. Secondly, I want to break the idea that something that is functional and healthy is necessarily drab and uninteresting. If clothes are not beautiful, it will only be something to wrap around and protect the body. Clothes have a social function too.
Probably people will understand that you don’t have to do something special for people who have any specific physical or emotional needs that only they can use. It can be used by everybody
People who have desires need not be shy and uncomfortable to ask. If they want attractive clothes, they should be provided. They are not asking for something impossible. Most things in the world are man-made. It is not the fault of the person who has been naturally made different that he/he cannot follow the design that someone not in their position, physically or mentally, has made. Everything should be designed in a way that each person can use. If a society that cannot include different people then it is a disabled society. Maybe through my adaptive clothing, I will be able to add to this change in the attitude towards people with disabilities.
Do you think India is a differently-abled-friendly country?
No. Not yet. But I hope it is getting there. There are many strong disability activists in India and I hope their efforts and network will be heard. Implementation of ideas has been a problem in Indian policy. But at least there is an acknowledgment that there is a need for something for the disabled people and this is taking India towards becoming a disabled-friendly country but not there yet.
Empowerment comes from the freedom to make a choice. Like every person has access to varieties when it comes to shopping, people with disabilities have the right to choose the right cloth for themselves.
What advice would you like to give to other women and people who are differently-abled?
When I was almost 90 percent disabled, I was completely dependent upon others. My muscles, my bones could not function normally. At that time, what kept me going was a desire to do something in life. My muscles or chronic pain cannot make me hopeless. It was then that a philosophy built in my life. I had the right to choose and power to do something in life, however small. I believe that one should not wait for the right moment, that never comes. Do whatever you want to do, don’t wait to take the first step. I still have the first dress that I designed though it was a failure. Have a big plan ready and never wait for the right moment. Start now.
Rudrani Kumari is an intern with SheThePeople.TV.