Close on the heels of the launch of the Accessible India Campaign in part fulfilment of India’s commitments under the Incheon Strategy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to push the Government’s commitment to persons with disabilities one step forward. He suggested, during the launch of the campaign on December 3, that instead of viklang, the commonly used Hindi word for persons with disabilities, such persons be called divyang – qualifying the ‘limb’ with divinity, instead of disease. The Prime Minister continued his gentle insistence on his apparent brainwave, the genesis of which he explained in great detail during a Mann ki Baat episode on the 27th of December to be ‘taken forward’ by the audience.
A paradigm shift in the approach to a marginalized community almost always brings with it a discussion on semantics, and almost always invokes the privileged making the clichéd) Shakespearian reference. This is not really about what sounds nicer. The disability rights movement worldwide has adopted the social model of disability, which diverts from the focus on the individual as the ‘issue’. The cause for disability is not the impairment – be it cerebral palsy or dyslexia or borderline personality disorder. What causes disability are barriers that exist – in infrastructure, or attitudes, or law, for instance – that prevent the full enjoyment of rights by persons who have these impairments, on an equal basis with others. Many groups within the movement demand ‘person first’ language, so that disability is not their only definitive identity. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, negotiated with the active participation of Disabled People’s Organizations across the world, has adopted this language. In the spirit of ‘nothing about us, without us’, it seems safest for the non-disabled to take this terminology to be the standard.
The apprehensions of the disability sector over this name change peaked after a speech last week in Varanasi, where the PM reiterated his view as part of his mantra to serve the poor and downtrodden. His belief is that when someone will encounter a divyang, because of this change in nomenclature, their attention would immediately be drawn to the extraordinary qualities that that person possessed. Persons with disabilities and their families would much rather attention be paid to the kind of reasonable accommodations they require to do ordinary things.
From a policy perspective, the PM’s statement cannot be seen in isolation. ‘Divyang’ celebrates the ‘abled gaze’ of persons with disabilities achieving beyond expectations, against all odds and difficulties, that they are ordained with special abilities to overcome any barrier that stands in their way. This is a celebration of visible feats by visibly disabled persons, feats that can be perceived by the general public and amplified by the media. Awareness and appreciation of achievements by persons with disabilities play a huge role in combating societal stereotypes. At the same time, we must consider the danger of such imagery to become disenfranchising stereotypes of their own. The fact that some persons with disabilities have excelled in different fields cannot and should not conflict with their right to support and the State’s obligation to remove all barriers that exist to their enjoyment of rights.
The focus on the spectacle of disability, often called ‘inspiration porn’ by disability activists, also creates another danger. The first thing that comes to mind when one reads the word ‘accessibility’ is likely to be a ramp. Physical access of public infrastructure is one of the focus points of the AIC, also referred to at Varanasi. Accessibility is of utmost importance in enabling the participation of a large number of persons with disabilities. However, it does not solve all problems, particularly for invisible disabilities. A ‘disabled friendly’ restaurant may not have considered what this means for an autistic patron. A ticket collector may restrain a person with early stage multiple sclerosis from occupying a ‘disabled’ seat. What does access mean for a person who has spent a significant part of their life in a leprosy home? For persons with disabilities who have been threatened with institutionalization and denial of legal capacity – the psychosocially disabled, the learning and developmentally disabled – the road to divinity still does not seem clear.
There is perhaps some merit to a person in power beginning a discussion on how a paradigm shift would translate, literally. In Tamil Nadu, former CM M. Karunanidhi is credited with coining the term ‘maatru thiranaaLar’ (differently abled). While not completely within the rights based approach, the leader’s lived experience as a wheelchair user and the Dravidian movement’s commitment towards evolving inclusive language has led to widespread acceptance.
It would be useful for politicians to mind their language – even if slightly out-dated, the overall sentiment of the PM is perhaps an improvement over ableist slurs used during the heat of parliamentary arguments and election campaigns.