When a loved one is diagnosed with a medical condition, many questions emerge: How will they cope with the harsh realities of the world? How do you deal with someone who is different from others? How will this revelation impact your life? What does this mean for their future?
The term ‘disabled’ is often associated with people diagnosed with different kinds of intellectual and physical conditions. The word is not exactly incorrect – these conditions often restrict normal functioning in social situations. But are we right in calling them disabled?
We are not. People are not and should not be labelled as anything, least of all disabled. When someone is diagnosed with a condition (like autism), they are not autistic; they HAVE autism. People with intellectual or physical conditions are differently abled because they possess unique abilities and perspectives and can look at the world in ways unavailable to many of us. Who they are as a person is not impacted by their medical condition, and it surely does not define their identity.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, has categorised ‘Persons with Disabilities’ into three categories:
While “person with disability” is defined as “a person with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which, in interaction with barriers, hinders his full and effective participation in society equally with others”; “person with benchmark disability” means someone with at least 40% of a specified disability. “Person with disability having high support needs” refers to a person with benchmark disability who needs high support. The Act also covers all criminal charges against those who violate the rights of the differently abled or commit acts of violence against them.
Continuing efforts have been made by organisations and groups that are dedicated to the cause, to a better life for the differently abled, to level the playing field. Every now and then we come across an odd number of success stories, but have things really changed for all? Do they all feel the same as you and I?
According to the United Nations, around one billion of the seven-odd billion people on this planet live with disabilities – they are the world’s largest minority. Of this number, as many as 40-80 million live in India, although the underdeveloped infrastructure of this vast country makes it difficult for them even to be counted. But it is not just the system that can be harsh and unwelcoming; prejudice and the karmic belief that disabled people are at fault for their incapacity can affect their ability to lead a normal life.
Catherine Novi, Regional Coordinator for rehabilitation projects at Handicap International talks about the several instances when people have been socially ostracised because of the backward mindset of the society. In her work with various communities, she has found many who believe disability is caused by black magic or bad karma, as a result of wrongdoing in the disabled person’s former or current life.
At the centre she works in, mother of Shweta, a nine-year-old girl with spina bifida – a condition caused by incomplete development of the spinal cord or its coverings – says: “Something happened in her former life to make her disabled.” Superstition has for a long time held back the progress of this country. Bridled with non-scientific ideas, many families fail to accept their differently abled children; discrimination begins right at home.
India still has a long way to go before the needs of the disabled are sufficiently met, or even recognized. If we take a short wander around virtually anywhere in the country’s capital, you are faced with stairs or steep, uneven pavements with stalls intruding on their spaces, running alongside unruly traffic. Although it takes time to restructure a city, this goes on to show how inadequately equipped we are for a diverse world.
Yet there are stories of success. Every now and then, there is a Devendra Pal Singh (India’s first blade runner) or a Sudha Chandran (actress/ classical dancer) or a Sai Prasad Vishwanathan (co-founder of “Sahasra”), who come up in the news and lead us to believe that disability is only a way of thinking.
But the real question is, do the differently abled have to be extraordinary to be noticed and accepted by wider society? This question will be around for a while, but the process of change has definitely begun. Gradually, people are recognising the fact that, given the right conditions, everyone can be empowered. Things are looking up for the differently abled; even the very definition of disability has undergone so much change.
The Government of India has taken the responsibility of providing the optimal environment to ensure full participation of persons with disabilities. In this context, the Government of India has introduced a number of programs, schemes, concession, and facilities for the welfare of disabled.
Through these interventions, the Government of India has made it clear that, as upholders of an inclusive society, it is our duty to empower persons with disabilities so as to help them realize their true potential and reach the zenith in their field of action. Being empathetic by recognising their potential is the only way to support them, and this has to begin by changing the disability nomenclature from within.
About the author
Deepak Kumar is pursuing his Master of Business Administration at Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. He is a Civil Engineer graduate, who has worked in the IT sector for about three years prior to his master’s degree.