It is time disability activism embraced language to debunk the myth that disabled people have unique skill sets

A loud round of applause for Aamir Khan for bringing together diverse views on disability in his “Satyamev Jayate” programme. Sprinkled with satire and humour, the TV show was a comment about the wider world from the viewpoint of disabled individuals with exceptional achievements. That said, it is important to evaluate what was, and more importantly, what was not articulated in the programme about disability in the Indian context.

Let us begin with the term “differently-abled.” “Differently-abled” is increasingly being accepted as an umbrella-term to denote a disabled population whose bodily capacities are said to differ from an average norm. The disabled themselves embrace such a label because it caters to a view that they possess abilities which are not quite the same as the rest, but nonetheless similar in potential and scope. It is claimed that the “differently-abled” deploy different abilities to muster their sensory and cognitive faculties to achieve things which others appear to do with ease. In this connection, there is also an unstated view that the label “differently-abled” does not suit people with intellectual disabilities because they lack the cognitive capacity to muster inner abilities. Given such a bias, the electronic media finds it hard to offer them equal space on the stage.

I certainly do not mean to take a dig at those role models who did appear on the stage. In fact, their contributions are significant. In so many ways, they convey the reality that disability activism relies on humour to capture nuances of social discrimination. The visually impaired interviewees for example, rightly criticised the popular view that blindness is intrinsically linked to karma and sin; asexuality; isolation; mendicancy; and for that matter, a talent for music. Where they, and others too falter is in thinking that they can demolish such a linkage by a mere labelling tactic. I may be flattered by the remark that “inspite of your … you are able to achieve so much.” For a moment, I may feel tempted to give myself a pat on the back for being a “differently-abled” achiever. This is so self-defeating because many a million so-called “differently-abled” citizens do badly because a certain kind of ability-enhancing training is unavailable to them. Clearly, we need a terminology that does not bank on the idea that the disabled are those who possess a set of abilities that are uniquely available to them, and nobody else. One of the participants, much to the amusement of the host, said it all when he said: “Tendulkar is differently-abled than Dravid, and Manmohan Singh is ‘differently-abled' than the other two!”

Body and disability

It also appears to me that our idea of bodily defect is not merely derived from experiences of disability. The notion is very much attached to the idea of appearance. How do I know this? I know this because I had the luxury to learn from little Nisha, who has a rare skin-thickening condition. On “Satyamev Jayate,” her parents narrated an interesting anecdote. Once Nisha and her mother were in a shop. The mother gets the shock of her life when a woman suddenly spits on Nisha's face, calling her an ugly creature. What Nisha said to her mom to console her is telling. She explained that the problem of ugliness was not with her, but with the woman who committed the assault. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly.

In fact, the woman, and those who are in her position, inherit ideas of ugliness, bodily defect, and the like from a consumer culture like ours which promotes beautification as a primary occupation. Shameless though it may sound, there are a wealth of cosmetic industries that spread the idea that a fair complexion is an absolute requirement. Even worse, they spread such an ideal through a host of symbolic narratives that trap everybody into believing that they need an appearance-lift after all. The phrase “black heart and white skin” for example, does not do the rounds as an innocent ‘kolaveri' idiom which one can use and discard by will. Instead, such symbolic idioms shape our internal images, the very impressions of our fellow beings that we carry on in our heads.

When confronted by someone who seemingly appears different, such dormant symbols launch themselves readily into a viral action. For example, the internal image of an ugly creature may provoke someone to spit on, verbally abuse, and even annihilate those who look different from a standard norm. I am afraid this is bound to increase since men, women, and those with all kind of orientations and abilities, are increasingly lining themselves up at the devil's anvil, where an absolute appearance ideal is manufactured.

Four points

So what do we do now? More precisely, what kind of disability politics do we need? First, we need a nuanced understanding of the idea of ability. Rather than treat it as an innate faculty, ability (differently or otherwise), should be seen as a sort of a cultural investment. Reading Braille, Assistive Technology usage, musical appreciation, orientation and mobility, and others, which disabled people appear to do with the aid of a mysterious inner ability, are in fact learnt over a period of time. These skill sets appear natural and not cultivated as such since they are acquired from institutions that are tucked away from public view. All the same, the disabled may display a certain clumsiness in the performance of abilities of every day life such as eating, speaking, body language modulation, sporting, making love, and caring. Such clumsiness is symptom of a long-term institutional isolation, and not ability difference. Insights like these may lead us to a policy thinking that one needs to invest a certain amount, culturally and financially, to cultivate abilities that are amenable to all.

Second, disability activism should work against aggressive individualism. Such an ideal treats disability only as a market category. For example, while appreciating a disabled sky-diver as we did during the programme, we can identify deficits in cultural and institutional infrastructures of the sport. They may actually deter many other disabled people from pursuing sky-diving. To look for only role models such as a disabled sky-diver is tantamount to celebrity culture, and not disability activism. In fighting a market-oriented individual lifestyle, disability activism may promote a society that deems mutual care as a valued good. Third, a disability rights movement should remain critical of the medical establishment. It should also endeavour to reform medical education. A socially responsible medical education can in fact complement disability activism. And fourth, disability activism should be a socially transformative enterprise. The attitudes that undermine people with disability are also the same as those that contribute to gender stereotypes. People who fight for gender justice for example, vouch for the fact that structural alterations do not transpire in isolation. When it comes to structural transformation, disability is particularly in an advantageous position since it is not tied to a specific identity such as a race or a caste. After all, only three per cent are born with a disability, the rest drift into it during the course of their lives.

(Hemachandran Karah is a Visiting Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. He can be reached at hemakarah@gmail.com)

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