Ignoring strong objections from disability rights organisations, the government has replaced the word “viklang jan” (persons with disabilities) with “divyang jan” (persons with extraordinary abilities) for the department that comes under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE).
Recently, the Cabinet Secretariat issued a notification renaming Viklangjan Sashaktikaran Vibhag (Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities) as Divyangjan Sashaktikaran Vibhag — the word Divyangjan has been added in brackets to the English version.
Replying to an RTI query filed by a disability rights organisation opposed to the move, MSJE said it consulted six independent organisations dealing with disabilities, in addition to some government-run ones, and all states and union territories, before the nomenclature change.
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The independent organisations, named in the reply dated April 12, include National Association of the Deaf (NAD), National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), National Federation of the Blind (NFB), National Association for the Blind (NAB), Amar Jyoti and Action for Mental Illness (ACMI).
But when The Indian Express contacted these organisations, five denied receiving any official correspondence from the ministry. Only the Bangalore-based ACMI said they received a letter but only after they contacted the ministry on being informed by another NGO that their name figured on the list.
It was in his last Mann Ki Baat address of 2015, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about how he thought that ‘divyang’ should replace ‘viklang’ as in his view such people are endowed with ‘extra power’ and ‘divyata’ (divinity).
But several disability rights NGOs have written to the ministry protesting the term which they state is “patronising”.
“Even going by the ministry’s claims, except ACMI, all others are Delhi-based organisations. Those in Chennai and West Bengal have strongly opposed this word. No comments were sought from them,” said Abha Khetarpal, a counsellor for the disabled and a polio survivor who was instrumental in getting the RTI replies from the Centre.
Union Minister for MSJE Thaawar Chand Gehlot said, “The idea behind the name change is that as soon as you say viklang, our attention goes to what is broken in the person, his flaws. Our culture and civilisation says that we should use words that don’t hurt another person. The United Nations consulted many countries and came up with ‘persons with disability’. But in India, such people have been called divyang right from the ancient times since they have a special body. In our culture, we have had gifted people like Asthavakra, the sage who had eight deformities or Surdas, the blind singer.”
He added that it was the opinion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a majority of the states agreed. “Usually, we can take such a decision on our own but we decided to involve states and NGOs before sending the file to the PMO. There may be a few organisations that are not happy with the use of the term but it is not possible to consult everyone on the matter,” said Gehlot.
“This term attributing divine power to us is simply condescending. When Gandhi used the term Harijan, the community rejected it. We have a right to decide what we want to be identified as, and not the Prime Minister,” said disability activist Dr Satendra Singh.
He added that India was one of the first major countries to ratify the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) under which it has agreed to use the terminology ‘persons with disabilities’.
Singh, Khetarpal and several organisations such as the All India Confederation of the Blind have written to the PMO and the MSJE slamming what they term is a discriminatory and euphemistic word for ordinary people with disabilities.
Most of the six organisations that the ministry claims to have consulted told The Indian Express that a nomenclature change is a futile exercise that doesn’t really translate into attitudinal change.
“The so-called positive terminology has no meaning if the stigmatisation and marginalisation continues. Being referred to as a supernatural being isn’t okay either. We have disabilities, acknowledge it,” said NAD secretary AS Narayanan.
Javed Abidi, from NCPED, said that the etymology of the word ‘viklang’ has negative connotations. “However, I do not endorse the use of the word divyang as it is superfluous. Maybe Hindi linguists can come up with an alternative. Until then we need to focus on real issues that affect persons with disabilities” he said.
According to the MSJE, of the 36 states and union territories, 14 have concurred with the ministry while six have opposed it or suggested alternatives. “Sixteen states and UTs have not replied within the stipulated time; it was our prerogative to change the name and we did it since the others had replied in favour of it,” said an MSJE official.
He added that while the English usage of the word ‘persons with disabilities’ will continue, in Hindi it will be changed to divyang. “Until 2012, we used the word ‘nishakt’. This was found to be offensive and changed to ‘viklang’. In English, there are other words such as differently-abled or specially-abled but in Hindi the scope is limited,” he said.