Even as the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) proceeded with haste to change the name of its department from ‘viklang’ to ‘divyang’, based on a five-month-old suggestion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a four-year-old advisory to remove the term ‘handicapped’ from the names of five national institutes is still pending.
In 2012, Prasanna Kumar Pincha, Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD), issued an advisory to the MSJE asking the ministry to do away with the expression ‘handicapped’ while referring to its national institutes.
Five such institutes currently use the word — Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped (Uttar Pradesh), Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Institute for the Physically Handicapped (New Delhi), National Institute of Mentally Handicapped (Secunderabad), National Institute of Visually Handicapped (Dehradun) and the National Institute for Orthopaedically Handicapped (Kolkata).
The term was to be substituted with ‘persons with speech and hearing impairment’, ‘persons with physical disabilities’, ‘intellectual disability’ and so on.
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Pincha, who is visually impaired since birth, is the only disabled person to have been appointed to the post of CCPD at the government of India level.
Currently working as Special Rapporteur (Persons with Disabilities) with the National Human Rights Commission after his superannuation in December 2014, Pincha told The Indian Express that he had written to the MSJE and Chief Secretaries of all states to officially desist from using the word ‘handicapped’, but barring a couple of states, there was no response.
“Etymologically, ‘handicapped’ comes from the hand and cap. In medieval Europe, the practice of begging with a cap in hand was associated with persons with disabilities who were believed to be incapable of doing anything else. The word violates, smothers and undermines my dignity as a person with disability,” said Pincha.
In 2007, India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which stipulates that all existing policies must be in sync with it, including use of the term ‘persons with disabilities’ for all purposes. In his letter to the MSJE, Pincha had pointed out how the expression ‘handicapped’ is “manifestly against the spirit of the Constitution of India, the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 and the UNCRPD to which India is a State party”.
Recently, the MSJE changed the nomenclature of the Department of Disability Affairs under it from ‘viklang’ to ‘divyang’, much to the chagrin of disability rights organisations. The name change in Hindi was effected swiftly following a December 2015 Mann Ki Baat address by Modi, who had said that such persons are gifted with ‘divinity’.
Some disability rights organisations, whom the ministry claimed to have consulted, denied being kept in the loop while others lodged a formal protest with the ministry and the PMO about the word being patronising.
Disability rights activist Dr. Satendra Singh, who wrote to the ministry against the use of divyang, said, “Last year, I had filed an RTI asking the MSJE on why it had not yet done away with the word ‘handicapped’. The ministry responded that the file for the name change has gone missing. I filed a first appeal and suddenly the lost file was found.” An MSJE official said the file is still under consideration.
Pincha said that the haste shown by the ministry in adopting the term ‘divyang’ was not visible when it came to removing the word ‘handicapped’ since the directive was not from the PM. “Persons with disabilities are either treated as sub-human by calling them handicapped or as super-human by hailing them as divyang. Neither is true. We are ordinary people with strengths, weaknesses and emotions.”