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Dear PM Modi, ‘There Is Nothing Divine In Living The Life Of A Disabled Person’

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By Merril Diniz:

Prime Minister Modi said in a speech in December 2015 (translated from Hindi): “If somebody says ‘viklang’ (physically challenged person), we immediately start looking for the defect in his or her body. If we start calling them ‘Divyang’, then it immediately changes the perception, to focus on what is the special part of the body with divine powers given by God. This will create a change in the mindset of the people.”

Ever since, dissent has been brewing against the usage of the word ‘Divyang’. “What’s in a name?” you may wonder. To get answers we asked the question on Youth Ki Awaaz’s Facebook page.


And received these impassioned responses, as follows.

Malvika Shreekumar

I am a Modi supporter but I disagree with the view that disabled people should be referred to as ‘part of the divine’. Such nomenclature literally forces theistic ideas down people’s throats. What if the disabled people we’re referring to are atheists? They would probably feel disrespected by this term. Religion and God should be kept out of such matters and neutral terminology like the Hindi equivalent of ‘differently-abled people’ would probably be a better alternative. Mr. Modi should also allocate a greater portion of the Union Budget towards the actual development of infrastructure for the differently-abled so that their lives can be made more comfortable. If he wants to effect attitudinal changes towards the differently abled, he could invest more in awareness programmes in schools because most ideas and prejudices are formed in children when they are of school-going age.

Parvinder Singh
Campaigner working on social change and disability issues

Disability is created by barriers that exist in the so-called normality narrative, in processes and structures. This not only limits opportunities but also excludes people and groups from participation. The mindset and the language we use, reflect how we look at disabilities or diversity that challenge the normality. One of the classical ways of excluding people with diversities has been to link them with some extraordinary, yet, abnormal imagery. Like defining women through relationships – like mother, daughter, goddess – a personification of sacrifice, someone with unfathomable strength to endure suffering and so on. People with disabilities being called PM Modi’s ‘Divyang’, is nothing short of reverse stereotyping, which again is excluding, as it positions people with disabilities as some special creatures with special skills, and every time it is used, it reminds me of disability rather than humanity and citizenship rights. Let’s get serious about empowerment and an inclusive society rather than inventing a new imagery of disability akin to divinity.

Neha Arora
Founder, Planet Abled

Coming out with a correct word is not the real problem at hand or something we should focus upon. We should work towards Universal Design in our infrastructure, physical and technological, and an equally accessible life and acceptance in society of people with disabilities. Barring any sympathetic attitude, consider them as normal human beings with equal rights. Using a separate word would just create another discrimination like we have of castes in India. Has it helped us in anyway? No! So this also won’t. Let’s work towards an inclusive world where everything is for everyone and no person with disability is looked upon as an alien or given gawking comments if they lead a normal life or enjoy life like everyone else.

Rajen Nair
Photojournalist who trains youth with hearing impairment in photography

Those who want to call people with disabilities ‘Divyang’, perhaps must work among the disabled. They will discover there is nothing divine to live a life of a disabled person.

Sanghamitra Das
Fashion Consultant & sibling of Bengali poet and writer Debasish Das

A name change makes absolutely no difference to a disabled person. They just need to be given equal facilities to be more independent. They need respect and facilitating their life will make them able to move around outside the house. Personally, I feel the day it becomes a common thing to see a person on a road no one will stare and make it more comfortable for them. Schools and colleges to start inclusive education in a big way and instil empathy and respect in the young age to really make a change.

Vinayana Khurana
Student at Vivekananda College

The name “DIVYANG” or “VIKLANG” is not the issue. The main point should be Respect and Awareness. Every time we see a person with a wheelchair we say, “Sorry”. It’s not about apologising. It’s about seeing that person as an equal, as our beloved Mahatma Gandhi named people of disadvantaged groups as “Harijans” but till date, there are instances of their abuse. So, instead of concentrating on the name, take a step for equality.

Abha Khetarpal (Disability Rights Activist/Counselor/President & Founder Cross of Hurdles) & Dr. Satendra Singh (Disability Rights & Zim Ckt. Assoc Editor, Research & Humanities in Medical Education (RHiME))

Different models have defined the term disability and grouped persons with disabilities, accordingly. Time and again, various terms and phrases have been used in different languages to identify persons according to the differences in their bodies and the level of functioning of those bodies. Analogies and metaphors create stereotypes and can affect the formation of an individual’s self-concept. Clichés like “divyang”, i.e., one who has some divine powers to compensate for the deficiency in the body, based on the super-crip theory of disability, can distort the self-concept and hamper identity formation. Society and the state cannot, and must not shrug off their responsibility by using such sugar-coated terms to label individuals. The real requirement is the creation of a non-disabling environment and the provision of equal opportunities to those with disabilities rather than coining of new terms.

(extract from their paper published in the ‘Indian Journal of Medical Ethics)

Rita Batra

You may call them ‘viklang’ or change to ‘divyang’. The only thing they need is lots of love ❤, respect and care.

(Sexuality And Disability, shared a link to their blog with these two perspectives)

Nidhi Goyal
Gender and Disability Rights Activist

I am not Divyang and don’t prefer being called that. I think we have found another way through the PM’s address to tell the disabled that you are ‘not normal’. First, you were less than those who were ‘normal’ which means you were ‘abnormal’ and now you are the super power so ‘super normal’. The main emphasis is that you are different not like us – the regular ‘normal’ population. Who is normal I say?

Amba Salelkar
Disability Rights Activist working at the policy level

The head of State recognising people with disabilities as Divyang is very uncomfortable, because really it conveys the image that people with disabilities have achieved things, despite all obstacles, because there is some divinity or special power within them that gives them this ability. Which takes the focus away from the removal of barriers, which is kind of the whole point of the social model of disability, and which is the State’s obligation to fulfil. The intention may be to remove attitudinal barriers, but it runs the risk of creating another one, which is prioritising one kind of disabled person (the achiever) over another. It’s a step backwards and is quite incompatible with what India should be doing under various International covenants.

Vedant Goel
Professional & “Water dada” of Pune

I believe that every disabled person certainly has got some special power to help him survive in this world. I agree with Modiji as we are motivating the disabled and removing the stigma of being called a disabled from their minds.

Dawn Young
Mumbai based professional

Would not call them divine but then I would not call anyone divine for that matter. They like to, and must be treated equally. So, while I’m a fan of PM, I tend to disagree with him here.

Angel Singha
Sign Language Interpreter & conduit for a Disability Inclusive Environment

Changing name would not end discrimination. While “viklang” has a negative connotation to it so “divyang” may sound better to some. But a change in terminology will not change the existing exclusion and marginalisation.

Pooja Singh

PM Narendra Modi may have the best intentions. The word invests bodies with holiness (sacred body), rather than the harsh “vikalang” (deformed body). But many in the disabled community agree that “Divyang” is an epic fail. Much like Gandhi’s use of the word “Harijan”, it is imposed by a seemingly benevolent outsider, and is condescending to those it describes. The word “Dalit” on the other hand, chosen by them builds an assertive politics and community. A person with a disability is not just trying to fight stigma, but also the sentimentality of others. They are not trying to be inspiring or heroic; they want their due from an abe-list world. While the right term in Hindi needs to be found, “Divyang” is an oversimplifying and patronising word.

Since PM Modi’s introductory speech, multiple petitions have been launched asking the Government to take back the usage of “Divyang”, a Twitter handle @DrEnablist has cropped up, and hashtags like #NotToDivyang and #TakeBackDivyang are accompanying anti-Divyang tweets.

This petition makes an interesting point about the irony of the usage of “Divyang”: “It is a joke in poor taste to use the word #Divyang (Divine) in a country where PWDs can’t even enter a place of worship.”

Inaccessibility is a severe issue in a country which has over one crore people with disabilities. If you would like to share your views, experiences and anecdotes, on the subject of disability and inaccessibility, please send in your perspectives @ info@youthkiawaaz.com

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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