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An Open Letter To The PM: We Don’t Need Any More Labels Like ‘Divyang’

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By Abha Khetarpal:

Modi with disabled person
Image Source: Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images

Today I sit to write to you, because like so many fellow citizens of my country, I am also feeling suffocated, disappointed, somewhat angry and displeased by the word “Divyang” being made official to address persons with disabilities.

Sir, I have always been a fan of yours and have admired the tough stands you take regarding various issues. You seem to be like a rock, when it comes to concerns raised by ordinary citizens. But when we, the people with disabilities, asked for your attention as a citizen’s entitlement, all our strong objections were ignored by your government. Now “Viklang jan” (persons with disabilities) has been replaced by the word with “Divyangjan” (persons with extraordinary abilities). How can the biggest democracy in the world ignore the genuine voice of 10% to 15% of its population! What precedence would this set?

I sincerely doubt that your advisors and subordinates have ever apprised you in detail about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) as this law which we have received is the government’s apathy and cold shoulder in our country.

Never mind Sir! Let me have the honour to bring it your kind notice that India was one of the first countries to ratify UNCRPD in 2007. India was legally as well as constitutionally obligated to bring its domestic laws in line with the spirit and purpose of the same. But nine years down the line the perceptions of Indian parliamentarian falls far short of what it is bound to do.

Let me explain it to you further. The UNCRPD lays a solid platform in Article 3 (c) for full and effective participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and the General Obligations in Article 4(1), mandates the State Parties to closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities through their representative organizations and consult with them before deciding anything for them. But your cabinet minister has unheedingly stated, “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.”

Sir, if you care to read through the document you would find specific mention in Article 4, paragraphs (a) and (b) of the Convention that:

“1. States Parties undertake to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. To this end, States Parties undertake:

(a) To adopt all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention;

(b) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities; …”

Though the Convention was seen as a significant step in the paradigm shift in India from charity and welfare to rights and empowerment of people with disabilities, we still are lingering on with the heavy baggage of stone aged concepts in the name of traditions. The CRPD seeks to alter old-fashioned attitudes and eliminate social barriers which prevent persons with disabilities from leading full lives on an equal basis with others. Remaining completely ignorant about the articles of UNCRPD your Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment recently gave an irrelevant and gratuitous statement in a national daily. In his own words, “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.”

Let me remind you Sir that much water has flowed under the bridge since the times of Asthavakra and Surdas. This is 21st century and we still are delving our heads into mythology to find solutions to the issues of the present days. Who does not know that Hindu mythology has been a bastion for the misinterpretation of disability? So what do we call this? Is it progression or regression?

Please allow me to enlighten you that such name calling creates stereotypes reducing the individuality and character of people to false social constructs, undercutting the humanity of the target group. Your good intentions would lead to unfortunate implications. I believe that you are oblivious of the fact that this word demarcates, but in a saccharine manner. It is forcefully pushing us back into ancient times when charity was the only way on which persons with disabilities could survive. With such a figurative language of disability how can we be recognised as full participants in social, economic and political conversations in the country.

Let me ask you if you really believe that putting us on a pedestal would bring a shift in attitudes of the society? In that case sir, you are highly mistaken! The term has already began “othering” us and the day is not far away when it would be used as an abuse! Solutions to the appalling problems do not come up instantaneously with embellished words and glossy terminology. Such tactics might work well during election campaigns, but serious and delicate issues of society demand in depth study of the subject and rational thinking.

The term would have patronizing effect on people with disabilities, relegating them to low-skill jobs, setting different job standards and sometimes lower standards which tend to alienate them, or expecting a worker with a disability to appreciate the opportunity to work instead of demanding equal pay, equal benefits, equal opportunity and equal access to workplace amenities.

Whole world knows that you are a greater orator and have strong foothold over language. I assume that you very well understand what implications language and words can have on the psyche of the common people. With all its damaging effect it would reduces a person to his physical body. Sir, we are more than our bodies and do not want lose our self identity in the process of others being presumptive about our lives. We would not like to be treated as a ‘bulk’.

Sir today I write as a proud person with disability. I am a polio survivor and I can bet that polio virus has, in no way, made any of my body parts divine!! So let me inform you I am not a Divyang! My disability is not a misfortune warranting charitable considerations. Being celebrated as in touch with the divine, for just coping up, not only negates our own achievements, but also sets aspirations very low. Please do not encroach upon the human angle of our lives. We are ordinary individuals seeking to live ordinary lives. Allow us to have dignity of risk and the possibility of failure.

We have been hearing disability service providers talking, talking, and only talking about what “those people need” or how “those people can’t” do this or that. We have had enough of the “pity party”. Let me reiterate my statement that we are capable of exerting choices. We see ourselves not as objects of care or humanitarian concerns but as citizens with all the rights and duties that full citizenship entails. Thus no one should dare to indulge in our systematic disempowerment along with reinforced dependency. Our idea of self determination expands the notion of independence from physical achievements to personal, political and socio-economic decision making.

All over the world, people with disabilities are themselves acting as catalysts of change. The desire to no longer remain as passive recipients of care has resulted in their struggle to acquire rights to achieve full participation.

Respected Mr Prime Minister, if we were really ‘Divyang’ then we would not have been so often humiliated due to the huge gaps in service provisions in relation to housing, education, employment, transport/mobility and personal assistance. We do not want non disabled to decide what is best for us and how our needs should be met.

Do you not, Mr. Prime Minister, agree and realise that disability is not so much a condition of the human body as it is of an environment and society that disables us from accessing rights and living a full life. If you really want to do something for us then please make sure that the state recognises its responsibility and work towards ending the reign of inaccessibility instead of coining shallow and superfluous caconyms. I don’t blame you for that because understanding our struggles and straggles necessitate disability consciousness.

When you became our Prime Minister there was a kind of excitement and optimism that ran through my veins and I wrote a lot about it on social media. For me my country was saffronized as saffron is the colour of connection, a sense of community, belonging and social aspects of being. But I am pained to see that India still remains pigmented in shades of black and white. Why can’t we have an intricate weave with all colors present, a multitude of texture?

Sir as you keep on visiting various countries, you may be aware of the best practices going on globally. For instance, recently President Obama who blocked the federal government from using the words “Negro” and “Oriental” to describe blacks and Asians. This has been done because they want people of all backgrounds to be treated with dignity and respect.

I am also apprehensive and concerned about the reaction of United Nations when they come to know that actualization of this bedecked term ‘Divyang’ is a premeditated act of the State, superficially implying positive representation but perpetuating a discourse of negativity around it. It reminds me of Chinese people who maimed themselves or their children so that they would make more, begging.

Let us celebrate each other, in all of our individual and collective awesomeness. Let’s celebrate disability and all the opportunities for growth it presents. Let us renew our pledge to do what all we can to shift the paradigm of prejudice or stereotypes regarding disability. Let’s promise to try to treat people as they are. We are not conditions, not diseases, not shattered pieces, not inspirations, not supercrips, not anything else, other than human beings.

Sir we have heard that slogans for all your much hyped campaigns like Make in India, Skilled India, Beti Bachao, Swachh Bharat etc were created by advertising agencies. But for us, let me give you a ready made slogan used multiple time in UNCRPD and it is “Nothing about us without us”. Let us develop the strength to include everyone to add their creativity, intelligence and spark of life and make things glorious rather than glorifying impairments. Sir, give us accessibility and we shall give you productivity but we neither possess divinity nor exuberate the same just to inspire others!

This open letter was originally published in the Indian American Times

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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.

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