Why Does Disability Make Us So Uncomfortable?

Posted on July 26, 2016 in Disability Rights

By Parul Ghosh:

“Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
It answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”

These lines by Warsan Shire resonate with me every single day. There’s distress and conflict all around us. It’s almost as the universe is giving us a signal to look beyond our own predicaments and notice the world falling apart.

Today, I woke up to a news of a 26-year-old knife-wielding man, killing 19 people with disabilities at a facility in Japan while several others were injured. Later on this man, a former employee of the facility, turned himself in and admitted performing this barbaric act to rid the world of disabled people.

There was of course a lot of uproar online, with everyone condemning the act. The exact motivation behind the crime is not yet known but today this made me think and think really hard – What is it about disability that makes us so uncomfortable?

My first interaction with disability was way back when my mother taught at a ‘special school’. The kids there – they were different. They looked different, talked different and well, they even sat far away, segregated from the rest of the school. Years later I am now a disability rights professional and it has taken me a long time to get where I am. After my stint with Civil Society, I am now associated with the Government of India for a very ambitious campaign on achieving accessibility for persons with disabilities.

But this is my story. What about everyone else who has practically no exposure to disability in this country?
People with disabilities constitute an invisible population. The reasons for this are multiple – lack of access, cultural norms, misinformation, and religious theories. Historically, disabilities have been considered punishments for sins committed in a previous life by an individual or their family members (Schlossar, 2004). And this belief continues to prevail in many parts of the country.

I often wonder how my own friends perceive disability. How would they react if they came across a person with visual impairment? I wouldn’t blame them for being ignorant or for not knowing how to communicate with someone who had a speech impediment. My peers often use the word handicapped and I am sure very few of them know that the world is now moving beyond braille into the fascinating realm of technology and communication systems. But I don’t blame them.

I don’t blame them because their daily interactions simply doesn’t involve people with disabilities. A classic case of ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Every other day on my way to work, I see a young visually impaired man walking towards a bus stop on the ring road. The other day I spotted a girl using crutches in the metro during the rush hour. Apart from that occasional man rushing to catch his bus and the girl struggling to find a seat amongst the crowds, I have barely seen another person with a visible disability in a public space. And this is in a country of almost 70 million disabled people.

And because we don’t see them anywhere, we don’t really know what to do if a situation demands any kind of an interaction. We simply need to start talking about disability. Policies and implementation are of course important, but require a separate discourse. It was interesting to note that disability may soon be included in the school curriculum because honestly when it comes to awareness that’s where it needs to begin. Mainstreaming and doing away with special sections was a step that was welcomed by many. But what happens to that child with hearing impairment whose teacher and friends don’t know how to sign?

We need to teach our kids what diverse really means and that true diversity encompasses acceptance, dignity and respect. We need to teach our kids that we’re all different, disabled or not, and that is okay.

Banner image shared by: Parul Ghosh

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