Shani Dhanda: On Everyday Equality

Sunetra Senior Wednesday 26th February 2020 06:03 EST

Shani is an award-winning event manager, social entrepreneur and prominent spokesperson for the disabled community. She has worked with high-profile celebrities such as World Champion heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, having travelled the world, and boosted social visibility for a variety of marginalised groups, giving talks in the medical, charity and business sectors. Her infectious sense of humour distinguishes the petite live-wire too.

The 32-year-old was born with a rare genetic condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), more commonly known as Brittle Bones, “affecting one in every 15,000 people in the UK”. This means her frame is fragile and “bones could break easily or for no apparent reason.” Shani stated: “I was in and out of hospital through a lot of my childhood. I had to learn to walk again at least six times over.” A secondary feature of Brittle Bones can also be a shorter stature where Shani herself is 3’10”. The driven activist founded The Diversability Card, which offers discounts to disabled people due to the unavoidable extra costs they face living with a condition or impairment.

She is also the Founder of the new Asian Woman Festival which has been a career highlight, and the first spectacle of its kind in the country. In addition to campaigning for fairer treatment of those with disabilities, Shani has sought to commemorate the fully-fledged identities of women from South Asian culture where “we still see them in limited roles e.g. being just a wife or mother.” Shani wanted to highlight the multitude of ways in which fulfilment is found from a buzzing work life and family care to unique personal interests and hobbies. “The theme last year was around ‘Identity’ where we will be looking at ‘Honour’ in 2020. I was so tired of seeing events to either book your wedding or buy a sari on offer to women – that cannot be the only value we have for Asian Women.”

The Asian Woman Festival will take place in Shani’s hometown of Birmingham of which she is infinitely proud. “I’m a Brummy girl for life! I currently work in-between there and London. My full-time job is in project management for Virgin Media which is based in the City, but I enjoy staying connected to the place that has raised me.” The Festival consists of talks, panel discussions on significant social ideas, workshops from fashion to self-expression and budget-management, street food, pop-up bazaar and underground art from emerging talented artists. “I could not see these vibrant areas being promoted amongst the South Asian community or indeed such South Asian Female identity being represented in this dynamic way. Maybe in London, but not so much in the Northern English cities. There isn’t as much open dialogue.” By broadening the concept of South Asian heritage, Shani enhances individual confidence and creates clearer cultural visibility within the national community.

Similarly, Shani spoke of the reductive way in which society can view disability and the willing open-mindedness that is required to counteract this: “People don’t realise you are fundamentally the same as everyone else: you have the same wants, dreams and requirements. It is easy just to see someone as their disability, relegating them to that isolated space. I always say I am not defined by my condition: I define myself. After university I tried applying for over a hundred jobs and did not receive a single job offer. As soon as I removed the declaration of my condition, I was immediately offered work.”

In fact, Shani’s apparent fault has at once been an unparalleled source of aptitude: “I thrive in my career as an events manager because my entire way of life is centred on creative thinking. I have to think quickly: how do I reach a kitchen counter, how do I tailor my clothes, drive a car and so much more? Working hard is inbuilt for me because I am more challenged than the average person to progress. In my family, I’m always the one who plans the holidays or organises the big celebrations. There is so much untapped potential when one discriminates.”

Indeed, this highlights the flawed way in which we view difference altogether: “there is a very serious Us versus Them mentality ingrained in people,” Shani elaborated. “But it is wonderful to have diversity” and, of course, much realer to embrace ‘flaws’. Indeed, another significant aspect of Shani’s South Asian Woman festival is its highlighting of the everyday rewards that are part of ordinary life. Last year’s event boasted a workshop that helped accessorise Eastern clothes with Western style, and included a panel that discussed relationships and sexuality at great depth.

“When you live with a condition or impairment, it’s like you’re either treated like a celebrity or a nobody,” Shani commented, “you’re viewed as either a benefit scrounger or a Paralympian.” However, there’s a huge middle-ground of empowerment to be discovered. As the humorous entrepreneur herself embodies, there are finally a plethora of paths that lead to a full and prosperous life. “As someone who attended a special needs school in Sandwell, I never thought I’d one day be behind massive events for such influential people,”.

Success then does not come in one shiny cookie-cut form. Paradoxically staying grounded within herself, Shani emerges exceptional. As well as working with a number of big names in the entertainment industry, Shani has given talks at a number of big companies, flying to the Google offices for a Diversity Conference very soon. “I have to say that my mother has been a huge influence,” Shani concluded. “She never let me feel unable and taught me there is always another way of doing something.” Providing a transformative mix of discipline and love, Shani even remembers “her dumping a load of laundry next to me when both legs were in plaster saying ‘you’re not getting out of that!” And so, going deeper than the substantive gestures that would facilitate a better quality of life for a greater number of people, Shani demonstrates inclusive capitalistic thinking as the fundamental systemic change. “If I see underrepresentation, I have to move to address it. This is what underlies every project. If there isn’t room, I’ll create a chair and a whole table if necessary!” We’d like to see a crown also.

There next Asian Woman Festival (AWF) will be on this April 4th, 2020. Tell us more?

Last year, we had over 1000 people turn up, coming from locations overseas as well: Germany, Spain and Singapore. Expect an even more exciting array of people! There will be talks that address the complexity of British-Asian identity as well as South Asian women. As a role model, I want to empower others to reach their full potential too.

There will be: mainstage talks, on issues such as divorce, the cost of Asian weddings and mental health; workshops run by industry professionals; pop-ups by smaller and medium-sized businesses and finally opportunities to network and make new friends.

The target audience is unofficially the age range of 20-35, but we welcome everyone. 30% of turnout were those of non-South Asian backgrounds last year. We’re not just creating a safe space for Asian Women to attend but also a lean-in event where people can come to learn, support and collaborate. You can come to speak, sell or just listen! We want to put the spotlight on the unsung heroes.

Tell us more about your deep drive to foster equality?

No one was speaking on behalf of people such as myself. It was a very limited white homogenous spectrum. Also, people do not understand how easily disability can affect them. I was born with my condition, but so many acquire an impairment. The figure is currently at 14,000 disabled in the UK. I think we’ll see real integrative change when we see disabled people being portrayed in an everyday light, such as a mother to CEO - we don’t hear those stories.

T: @ShaniDhanda

W: Everyday Equality


“When you live with a condition or impairment, it’s like you’re treated like either a celebrity or a nobody”

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