News and Views on Tibet

Advancing Disability Rights by Expanding our Understanding:Interview with Ling Choktul Rinpoche

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Interviewed by Tenzin Deckyi

Ling Choktul Rinpoche, one of the most revered and learned Tibetan Buddhist masters, spoke candidly about his car accident that rendered him partially disabled, challenges he faced during recovery due to poor accessibility, and the importance of advancing the rights of disadvantaged people everywhere.

Born in Dharamsala in 1985, his Eminence Ling Rinpoche was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the 6th Yongzin Ling Rinpoche (1903-1983) in 1987. His predecessor was the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the 97thGaden Throne Holder, the supreme head of the Gelugpa tradition. On November 28, 2012, Ling Rinpoche sustained serious injuries from a car accident on his way to Goa Airport to receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After two years of multiple surgeries, countless number of physical therapy sessions, and a great deal of patience and fortitude toward making full recovery, Rinpoche has regained his full mobility. This interview is my hope through the message of one of our greatest teachers amongst us today to help raise awareness on the challenges faced by disabled people in our community, many of whom, for far too long, have been denied the dignity and respect that they deserve. Rinpoche’s accident reminds us all that circumstances can change in an instant and any one of us at any point in our life can become part of the disability community. Whether it may be by birth, an accident, or aging, disability is unavoidable and chances are that we all love somebody or have someone in our community with a certain disability. According to World Health Organization, more than 1 billion people (15% of world’s population) have some form of a disability, which means that every country or community has at least 15% of its population with disability. So, when the whole world observes the 22nd International Day of Disability on December 3rd, 2014, let this day be a poignant reminder for all of us to honor our obligation toward ensuring that the 15% of our community members who live with some kind of disability, visible and invisible, have the same chance to pursue dreams and be accorded the same rights and freedom as everybody else.

Ling Rinpoche, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today on a topic very dear to my heart. Two years ago I began working at the US State Department under someone who is an internationally recognized leader in the disability rights movement and a lifelong civil rights advocate and this job profoundly altered my path. Advancing disability rights has become part of my life now. After all, there are many striking parallels between the disability movement and our movement. But often when I look at the lives of disabled people in our community and the poor accessibility standards that unintentionally leave disabled people out or behind, I feel we have a long way to go. Considering that I have yet to see a single wheelchair accessible (for the general audience at least) monastery in the exile community, what challenges did you face after your accident in general and with regards to access?

The accident took place the day before His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Jangchup Lamrim teachings. That same evening I went through surgery. Although mentally I was alert and capable to attend and receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, because my accident left me physically disabled, I couldn’t attend the teachings. This was the most difficult thing for me.

And of course, the lack of accessibility all around was very challenging. Doctor advised me not to walk for 2 months after my surgery. Following my discharge from the hospital, I rented a place on the ground floor of a house in Goa. However, even the ground floor had a flight of stairs to go outside and even as I began gaining some strength and wanted to go out for a fresh air, I wasn’t able to go out. Though my physical disability kept me confined indoors for two months, easier access all around would have eased (my and others in similar situation) our recovery period.

After three months in Goa, I left for Delhi. From the moment I left Goa until I reached Delhi, I encountered difficulties with access throughout the entire trip. Whether it was boarding onto a plane and deplaning or going in and out of house, it was very difficult. I assume the lack of sidewalks, missing curb cuts, and potholes must be very difficult for others with physical disability.

I then stayed in Delhi for a year. There were many times when I wished to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamshala, but my disability and lack of access made it difficult and impractical for to me go. Basically, after my accident, there was not a single thing for which I could say, “It was not difficult”. Even for a task as simple as getting up from a chair.

Some people feel disability is a misfortune. It really is misfortunate in places where there is no legal recourse, where community’s expectation of disabled people is not held at the same standards, and where they are treated as charity case; and worst, they are inevitably more likely to become victims of violence. Some say their disability created new and different opportunities for them. What changes occurred to your mindset after the accident?

It was quite unfortunate that my accident happened but I don’t dwell on it because thinking about it will not help me walk normally. What everyone wants is a happy life and a successful life. In order for that to materialize, if you keep thinking about the unfortunate situations, it will only discourage you. There are types of disabilities that we cannot change, the form or the shape of that disability. But whatever technological advances and resources are available, we must be open to the advantages that science and medicine offer us. In my case, two days after the surgery, I immediately began physiotherapy. In spite of the pain and difficulty involved, I was determined to make complete recovery and worked hard to regain my mobility.

Basically, when it comes to disability or accident, it is important to have a winner’s attitude that you can overcome it. My first surgery was not successful. I was told I needed to have a revised surgery six months later. I immediately agreed to it despite knowing it was not going to be a simple surgery. In the end, I ended up with 12 screws in my knees. Many of us give up after one attempt. We all deserve to live a happy life. One must never give up the chance to acquire one’s ability if there is a way. I was open to all suggestions because I know I am healthy and one can guess I am going to live till at least 70 or 80, and I wanted to make sure I become physically able again.

The US is a world’s pioneer on disability rights and is proud to claim having gold standard on disability rights, but stigma and discrimination against disabled people still exist here. Typically, most governments, even in the developed world, do not have good enforcement mechanisms in place in protection of the rights of persons with disabilities. So I think what we need in place is high moral standards where we develop much kindness towards others and a high tolerant society for all people. However, in my work-related trips to Asia, I noticed that in Asian culture in particular, stigmas against disabled people are very strong and prevalent. What can be done to remove stigmas against persons with disabilities in our community?

For those individuals who acquire disability later in life, a circumstance led them to their present disability. In my case, my temporary physical disability is from my accident. Circumstances can also change disability. Whatever the case, what we as a community, particularly the non-disabled need to do is become a receptive audience to the cause of disability rights and help disabled people become fully integrated into our society and ensure that they receive the same opportunities to help them realize their full potentials. This will help them live independently in the long run as well as help contribute to the society. Such things are in our collective interest because I have heard about certain disabled individuals having heightened sense of sensory and
perception, and their unique talents can be very valuable.

Sometimes I see that our Buddhist way is to accept our disability as fate and be complacent as opposed to fight against stigmas, discrimination, and mistreatment. Should one accept it as fate and can we really prove that a person’s disability is the result of his/her past karma?

We cannot prove that their disabilities are result of negative karma but at the same time we also cannot confirm it is not a result of negative karma from their past life or a bad deed. For instance, I was in a car accident and acquired a disability. However, how can we prove or confirm that my accident is a result of my bad karma.

I think it is very important that monasteries become accessible for the disabled and elderly and our schools move in the direction of inclusion, which means disabled students can access every school buildings. Accordingly, I think some efforts are underway although it is costly to do so. However, the World Bank estimates that if you build the construction right from the beginning, it only cost 1% additional as opposed to retrofitting, which is more expensive. As you are aware, all public entities in the US are required by law to be accessible and this has allowed disabled children to receive the same level of education and the disabled and the elderly equal access to all public places. In the Tibetan community, majority of the monasteries, schools, and public areas are not disabled accessible. Since schools and monasteries are two most important places for us, what can be done to improve access standard overall in making our Tibetan community more disabled friendly?

During my visit here in the US, I noticed all the Metro stations have elevators and special seating designated for disabled and elderly, as well as in the buses and trains. I recently visited the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco and because I was using a cane, I didn’t have to pay. These are some great practices I have seen here in the US. As for making monasteries accessible in India, we should go through the Central Tibetan Administration’s Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs. Religious and Cultural Affairs have symbolic authority over the monasteries in exile and I am sure the monastic institutions will heed to such advisory from the administration.

Lastly, with regards to disability rights or any rights in general, we can no longer afford to be silent. Whether it is for racial equality in the US, religion or sectarianism, we must always fight for equality. I believe that one must fight for one’s own rights. In the case of disability rights, non-disabled should play a role, but the disabled people first and foremost must fight for it themselves. There is nothing that we cannot solve in this world. I believe every problem has a solution.

In closing, a society’s progress depends on how we take care of our most disadvantaged population and an individual’s true character is judged by how he or she treats his/her underlings. While there is no award that could replace the humiliation suffered or erase the pain endured by the disabled people in our community, what we can do as a society and individually going forward is to pledge a commitment to respect and promote the fundamental human rights for persons with disabilities and ensure that they are included in the wider agenda because failing to do so is not only an affront to our kind and peace loving culture, it will also obstruct our own goal of achieving a harmonious, respectful, and a tolerant society. Their rights are as crucial, if not more, as the same air of freedom and rights we are all fighting for. We will not be able to achieve our ultimate goal until our union is perfected. In a perfect union, we all deserve to be happy and have a successful life.

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