Ulgulan Talks! : Interview with Puneet Singh Singhal

The Sangyan
9 min readJan 18, 2023

--

In this eighth interview of The Sangyan’s ‘Ulgulan Talks!’, an endeavor to voice the issues of the larger interest of ‘We, the People’, Abhishek (the interviewer) talks with Puneet Singh Singhal, a young man from New Delhi, primarily regarding the impact of climate change on his life with respect to his disability.

A traditional cooking setup from a tribal village with “The Sangyan: Ulgulan Talks!” written over it on the smaller platform and below the earthen chimney. The setup has eight small earthen chimneys over a small platform that settles over a larger platform all made up of soil and other natural ingredients and are brown in colour.
The Sangyan — Ulgulan Talks!

Puneet has completed his education in Social Entrepreneurship and Leadership. Puneet is a disability activist advocating for a more inclusive and accessible society for people with different and distinct, visible, and invisible disabilities. Puneet is the founder of a non-profit called ssstart.org, working towards normalizing speech and communication disabilities, mainly stammering. Puneet also offer consulting support to various organizations like IUCN and NASA on how to be more inclusive. Puneet can be reached at his LinkedIn Profile.

This interview was conducted in January 2023 through online mode in written format. The due informed consent of the interviewee has been taken before the publication of the blog. Further, the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ of the interviewee shall be respected.

In Picture: Puneet Singh Singhal
In Picture: Puneet Singh Singhal

Hello Puneet, please talk about your life journey in some detail for our readers.

A humble ssstart to my life.

My life journey has been a roller coaster so far. I was born in a slum of New Delhi called Sangam Vihar, which is one of Asia’s largest unauthorized slum colony and home to a vast number of the working class. According to the Times of India, 90% of the criminals of southern Delhi come from this neighbourhood. Youngsters are indulged in drugs, violence, robbery, and all sort of illegal activities. Also, there is a steep increase in the number of suicides among youngsters due to lack of employment. For youth there are hardly any obvious opportunities. I was exposed to domestic violence by my alcoholic father due to this mother was depressed in most of my growing years. I have to suffer more due to poverty. Even drinking water and access to toilets was a luxury.

I am grateful that I got admission to government-run educational institutions where we got education almost free. Otherwise, I would have not been able to dream in my life.

I have had a stutter since I witnessed violence and mental abuse by my father. I used to do odd jobs to support my family. After graduation, I secured a well-paid job in an International Bank. But soon I realized that I was trying to fit into something which was not for me. I along with my two friends started an organization in July 2018 called “the Caring Hands foundation”. It was a spoken English and computer training centre. The centre was not much more than the terrace of my home. But we had a clear and simple rule: As soon as one entered the space, the only language of communication was English.

Being an observer, I realized that the Covid pandemic brought many unexpected side-affects: I witnessed sudden outbursts of fake news and forged videos which blamed one single community for the spread of Covid-19 in India. To counter this hate campaign, I designed a “Cyber Hygiene” program as I felt that practicing appropriate online etiquette was as crucial as maintaining physical hygiene like washing hands.

Later, we also campaigned against online bullying, trolling, financial fraud, and other malpractices. We believe that advocacy and counselling make our online users less vulnerable to cyber-attacks. It was the first program for which I got funding from an international organization.

Our efforts were recognized by the Delhi Minority Commission and by the UN Global Compact Network. I was a member of the Peace Committee of Delhi Minority Commission for a year. The Online learning Platform Coursera offered us a helping hand by giving our students free access to their courses. It helped us to continue our work remotely.

Due to lacking experience and guidance, we were exhausting ourselves, working extremely hard to manage the organization. And then I stumbled over a post in a Facebook group which mentioned Kanthari, a leadership training institute for social change makers. Studying the website and learning about the curriculum, I felt, it is exactly what we, my friends and I, needed. Many elements in this curriculum were new to me, even the selection process with intensive interviews were an enriching experience. And then there was the Pandemic, due to which the Kanthari 2020 batch was postponed. Also, we had to close our centre. Instead, we were distributing masks and sanitizers.

Taking my ideas forward to realize them in the real world, I also had to learn to unlearn.

Spending time and discussing different topics with other social change makers from diverse cultures, countries and backgrounds is making me think deeper and giving me a whole new perspective.

One day, When I was telling my experience of attending the annual conference of The Indian Stammering Association (TISA) and how these 2 days helped me to accept my stammering and realise that stammering has made me a more patient, empathetic and aware human being. Suddenly, my mentor Sabriye Tenberken, a blind inspirational lady who is also the founder of kanthari stopped me and said, “why don’t you work for People with speech disorders?” This question makes so much sense to me. I see this idea as a beginning of new phase of my life and I named it “ssstart” as this is how I say start.

ssstart is a center that gives hope to revive the warmth in human communication through exciting and engaging workshops, activities, and events.

We provide interactive spaces for people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds to be free, vulnerable, and patient human beings. Our main goal is to create authentic communicators who convey their message thoroughly and balance speaking and listening effectively.

We believe that any limitation can also be viewed as an advantage, and we call this the “unfair advantage”. In ssstart, we strive to empower persons with different speech disorders — like stammering, lisping, sigmatism (repetitive use of the ‘s’ sound in every word), and aphasia (forgetting words) — by focussing on direct and truthful communication while embracing speech disabilities. Next to empowering those with speech disorders, we advocate a society that communicates openly, thinks critically, and values patience and people so that when we, those with speech disorders, try to convey our messages, those without speech disorders listen till we finish even if it takes some time. This also implies that the listeners don’t finish our sentences if we get stuck.

We demonstrate self-humour through activities like stand-up comedy, rapping, and street plays. We want to prove that we deserve to be heard and belong in society. Occasionally, we invite successful personalities with speech disabilities to boost the self-confidence of our participants and show them that they can also achieve their dreams through constant practice and determination. We offer workshops focused on body language, public speaking, and sign language. We also get help from experienced psychologists for people suffering from traumas that require clinical support. We are on a mission to question the conventions that mechanize our existence. We are developing methodologies for new ways of communication that are simple yet effective, slow yet long-lasting, and professional yet playful.

Please talk about your condition/disability and comorbidities, if any, in some detail.

I am a person with stammering and an undiagnosed learning disability.

Does climate change and its induced disasters (read extreme weather and climatic conditions like heatwaves, cyclones, floods, etc.) have any impact on your physical health/condition? If yes, please illustrate on the ways it affects you.

I am feeling Climate anxiety which is feeling worried or stressed about the impacts of climate change on the planet and people’s lives. It includes feelings of fear, helplessness, and sadness about the future of the Earth and its inhabitants, as well as a sense of urgency to take action to address the issue.

Does climate change and its induced disasters (read extreme weather and climatic conditions like heatwaves, cyclones, floods, etc.) have any impact on your mental health/condition? If yes, please illustrate on the ways it affects you.

It is giving me anxiety and the feeling of helplessness or powerlessness in the face of such a large and complex global issue, as well as feeling of frustration or disappointment in the lack of progress in addressing climate change. It is manifesting as physical and emotional symptoms, such as hopelessness.

What do you think about climate change and its induced disasters (read extreme weather and climatic conditions like heatwaves, cyclones, floods, etc.) acting as a threat multiplier and resulting in capability deprivation (like loss of livelihood or additional medical expenses, etc.)? Please provide a personal account, if plausible.

Last year the heatwave was so severe that I have to close the functioning of my organization’s center and switch it back to online mode for conducting workshops. I felt hopeless as when I was traveling from my house to the centre which is around 20 kms I was completely drained due to severe heat and dehydration.

Please tell about any measure/action you take to adapt and mitigate the negative impact of climate change and its induced disasters (read extreme weather and climatic conditions like heatwaves, cyclones, floods, etc.) in your life to avoid worse-off experiences (like avoid travelling during extreme weather conditions or certain medication, etc.)? Please provide a personal account if plausible.

I reduced traveling.

What else you think that needs to be done to counter the worse-off experiences of climate change and its induced disasters (read extreme weather and climatic conditions like heatwaves, cyclones, floods, etc.) and to counter the disproportionate impact of climate change and its induced disasters on persons with disability concerning their physical and mental health, work and livelihood, hunger and poverty, disability inclusive disaster risk reduction, etc. to ensure disability inclusive climate justice.

The worst impacts of climate change and the disasters it causes, like extreme weather and climatic conditions, can be mitigated in a number of ways for people with disabilities. These consist of:

*Disaster risk reduction that is disability-inclusive entails making sure that people with disabilities are involved in the planning and execution of disaster risk reduction measures. This entails offering accessible evacuation routes, early warning systems, and emergency shelters.

*Accessible and inclusive climate adaptation strategies: This entails making sure that people with disabilities have equal access to strategies for coping with the effects of climate change, such as drought-resistant plants, water harvesting techniques, and climate-resilient infrastructure.

*Promoting the rights and participation of people with disabilities in climate change policy and decision-making entails making sure that their needs and perspectives are taken into account at all levels of climate change policy and decision-making.

*Social protection measures: This entails making sure that people with disabilities can access social protection measures like cash transfers, food assistance, and other types of support that can help them deal with the effects of climate change.

*Giving mental health support entails helping people with disabilities who may be especially susceptible to the emotional and psychological effects of climate change and the disasters it causes.

*Raising awareness and educating people: This entails raising awareness and educating people about the effects of climate change and the disasters it causes on people with disabilities as well as the significance of including people with disabilities in climate change policy and decision-making.

*Ensuring economic justice entails making sure that people with disabilities have equal access to economic opportunities and resources and are not disproportionately affected by the economic and livelihood insecurity brought on by climate change.

*Promoting disability-inclusive climate justice entails making sure that people with disabilities are included in the fight against climate change and that all decisions, policies, and other actions related to it take into account their inclusion and rights.

Any further comment you want to make in respect to the intersection between climate change (and its induced disasters) and disability.

We are working to develop a new curriculum that examines the relationship between mental health and climate change and we are excited to share this news. Both problems have as their common denominator the excess of greed and selfishness in human behaviour as well as the absence of love and empathy. We think we can foster a better understanding of how our actions affect not only the planet but also our own well-being and that of others by educating ourselves and others about the links between these two crucial topics.

One of the most at-risk populations for both mental health and climate crisis is the disability community. They are more likely to experience negative effects from environmental changes and may face additional obstacles and challenges in gaining access to resources and support. In order to effectively address these crisis, it is crucial to make sure that the needs and perspectives of the disability community are taken into account.

This was Puneet Singh Singhal talking about his life journey and his experiences with disability and climate change. We, at The Sangyan and Ulgulan Talks, thank him for giving his precious time and an opportunity to know about him and his lived experiences.

Abhishek Kumar is an NCPEDP-Javed Abidi fellow on Disability who is currently working on the “Impact of Climate Change on People with Disabilities. The author can be reached at <abhishek.ncpedp@gmail.com>.

The interview has been published on the blog of The Sangyan as part of its public engagement and discourse initiative called ‘Ulgulan Talks!’.

--

--

The Sangyan

Law. Environment. Disability | Curator ~ Adv. Abhishek Kumar | Working on the 'Impact of Climate Change on Persons with Disabilities' | thesangyan.in | 🇮🇳 |