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Updated: September 9, 2009 16:38 IST

Empowering people with disability

RAMYA KANNAN
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Much of the discourse on disability the world over has been initiated by scholars who are themselves disabled. Western scholars took disability beyond the biomedical estimation of the individual body and its limitations. Thenceforth, the need to place disability within the social context and solicit the society’s or the system’s response to the disabled has dominated at least the mainstream work.

Insight

Disability and Society, as a reader, provides a deep insight into the social construct of disability, examining theories of inclusion and exclusion through the course of history and taking up questions of identity and self-worth, and thrusts spokes into the commonly held notions of language and meaning.

The judiciously selected essays have been slotted into three parts — Disability in Medicine, Culture and Society; Life with a Disability; and Social Life with a Disability: Integration and Social Organisation. While these parts can coalesce quite seamlessly, the central section with insights from people living with disability serves as a solid connect between the other two.

In the first piece ‘Inclusion/Exclusion: An Analysis of Historical and Cultural Meanings,’ Jean-Francois Ravaud and Henri-Jacques Stiker set the tone for the rest. “Questions regarding the inclusion or exclusion of disabled persons cannot be separated from questions related to the global process of social cohesion or social dissociation. The way in which a society situates and treats its disabled is not independent of the way in which it constructs social bonds or dissolves them.” Compilations such as this often deteriorate to a Western reading of an issue, with much of the theory being pitched in that hemisphere.

This book marks a refreshing break from that tendency and recognises the need to highlight the course the debate takes in Asia, particularly in the subcontinent. While doing so, it is also candid in acknowledging that much of the “studies in Asian countries are designed to measure the extent of (unmet) need or the impact of services or attitudes to disabled people.”

Moving

The chapter on ‘The Damaged Self’ by Robert F. Murphy warrants a special mention. He starts thus: “I cannot remember ever before thinking about physical disability, except as something that happened to other, less fortunate people. It certainly had no relevance to me. A disabled person could enter my field of vision, but my mind would fail to register him?”.

Murphy’s life-story becomes all the more poignant when he narrates how he was suddenly forced into a wheelchair-life. An academic and a good writer, he does not stop with just narrating tales of the pain, sense of loss, and shock he suffered in his life, but subtly interlaces such experience with a range theoretical propositions, and the result is riveting.

Meenu Bhambani’s piece on ‘societal responses to women with disabilities in India’ raises the question — why are women with disabilities conspicuously missing? She goes on to analyse the societal, cultural, and historical factors that are responsible for this. Editors of the book hope that the publication will inspire new thinking among social scientists, rehab professionals, and organisations of disabled persons and lead on to the empowerment of persons with disabilities. Surely, there are indications that this is within the realm of achievement. For serious followers of the discourse on disability, this book is certainly an asset.

DISABILITY AND SOCIETY — A Reader: Edited by Renu Addlaka, Stuart Blume, Patrick Devlieger, Osamu Nagase, Myriam Winance; Orient BlackSwan, 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002.

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