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

Posted on June 3, 2016 in #Access4All, Society
CBM logoEditor’s Note: Youth Ki Awaaz and CBM India, a leading disability and development organisation, have come together to kick off #Access4All, an informed dialogue around the many dimensions of accessibility. After all, there can be no equality without accessibility.

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 @ [email protected]

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