Disability in India cuts across the boundaries of caste, gender and religion. Persons with disabilities are one of the most marginalised sectors of our society. We are looked down upon by the society, as it tends to judge us by the condition of our body, and it is widely believed that we are suffering due to the sins of our previous birth. This view has led to disability being seen as a stigma, which makes parents feel ashamed of their children, who in turn don’t want to take their disabled children out of their homes. This not only makes lives of persons with disabilities miserable, but they continue to be depressed throughout their lives because with such a state of mind, which is created by our society in the minds of persons with disabilities, one fails to see any ability in himself/herself.
The sympathetic attitude of the society is also a major problem. Sympathy is shown explicitly and implicitly, where one would either be sympathetic with us by making us feel sad about our lives or implicitly by the tone in which one talks to us. The problem is not with our lives which makes us miserable, but with the mindset of our society, which doesn’t see anything else in us except our disability. People tend to think that they are doing some charity or favour by helping us. This kind of attitude does not allow us to live our lives as equals. All this excludes us from the mainstream discourse which does not let us progress. I would now like to delve into the major problems faced by persons with disabilities in detail:
I have cerebral palsy and I am physically challenged and due to the transferable nature of my father’s job, I had to change schools on a frequent basis and changing school every time became a tedious task for me, as even today most of the schools deny admission to persons with disabilities. They think that giving admission to children with disabilities involves taking upon a huge responsibility and thus schools in India have a severely discriminatory attitude towards persons with disabilities.
It became a task to change schools frequently, because every time my parents would go for my admission, they would be told by the school authorities that they could not give me admission on various grounds, like lack of adequate infrastructure, classrooms being located on the second floor, strength of the classes is huge, problems of going to the washroom, taking exams etc.
In one such reputed school of Delhi, I was denied admission on all the grounds mentioned above and on top of that, the chairman of this school tried to show sympathy towards me and my parents by saying that we can’t give admission to your child, but we can help your child in other ways, like we can make question papers for your child which he can solve at home.
Today, when I look back, I find that these were all very trivial reasons for denying admission to me. The reality was something else – these schools judged me by my bodily condition and felt that I was not competent enough to receive equal education, that I was not at par with others. In this world of meritocracy, the bodily condition of persons with disabilities tends to be perceived as affecting their mental abilities as well, where disability becomes the defining feature subsuming other abilities of a person. Right to Education may have become a fundamental right for everyone but for persons with disabilities it will be a long struggle before our state and fellow countrymen treat us as equals.
Disability does not only pose barriers to education, it also affects other facets of life of persons with disability, like social interaction. It is widely believed in our society that disability is result of sins of person’s previous birth. This starts adversely affecting people’s attitude towards persons with disabilities, which starts trickling in their behaviour. People would often show unwanted sympathy and would keep cursing the body of persons with disabilities. There are two ways in which sympathy is shown to us. Comments like “bhagwan aise zindagi kisi ko na de”, “kab tak jiyoge aise”, “tumhe kitna bura lagta hoga na aise zindagi ka”.
Such type of obnoxious comments are normal for anyone with a disability. These are explicit examples of sympathy. People also tend to show sympathy implicitly, which one can easily make out by the tone of the person. Comments like “aap toh bhagwan ka roop hai”, “humne punya kama liya aapki help karke”. These types of comments are common in the implicit form of sympathy.
People assume that those with disability are incompetent of taking any decision regarding their life, which results in exclusion from any group conversation and in certain situations one can even be made to feel as some “outcast”, where one would like to indulge in a conversation and the members of the group would constantly ignore you as if you don’t exist or keep making faces at you, thus making you feel horrible and guilty at the condition of your life. There were many such instances in my school life, but one such instance, which I would like to mention is when I used to play hand cricket with my friends and my friends would constantly make faces at me for not opening or folding the fingers properly during the game. On many occasions, I wanted to resent such behaviour, but I never had the courage to tell them that I am also the same as them, and that they have got no right to insult me like that.
Disability makes a person dependent on others for help. This makes it difficult for a “disabled” person to express his/her feeling of being hurt, because there is a constant fear in the mind of the “disabled” person of losing a friend, or the other person can also make you feel as if you are not being grateful to his or her help. If one expresses his/her feeling of being hurt, chances are that one would either stop helping, ignoring, or the word would be spread amongst other friends/classmates that this person with disability is not worthy of being helped as he/she does not ‘deserve’ others’ help and then other fellow classmates would also start making you feel horrible.
One can’t even complain about this to teachers as then the other classmates would take side of the classmate who had mocked the “disabled” classmate and then the teacher would also say that instead of being obliged to that classmate, you are being rude. As a result, a “disabled” student does not have any support system to which he/she can resort. This happened with me many times. I could have dealt with this in two ways: one was to be depressed and the other way was to emerge as a strong person who doesn’t care about what people say. I choose the latter though my heart would wrench whenever people would mock my disability. I learnt over a period of time to survive by ignoring those faces who mocked my disability.
At the same time, I am conscious of the fact that not all “disabled” students are strong, who could constantly take insults and then manage to smile. I am lucky to have parental and family support, which played a pivotal role in shaping my attitude towards life, but I am also conscious of the fact that in most cases persons with disabilities do not even have parental support to keep them motivated in the face of such adverse circumstances. Hence, the collective conscience of the society should introspect its attitude towards persons with disabilities and should come out of the parochial mentality of viewing disability through a unilineal perspective of deeds of previous birth of a person and should instead endeavour to focus on productive capabilities of persons with disabilities, enabling this section of the society to realise its dreams.
However, in order to achieve any such goal would call on the social rights activists to break the hierarchies, which they have created in the rights-based approach. Today, in the right based discourse, everyone has their interest group which lends support to only those groups which are of their respective interests. In the pyramid of the right based discourse, the rights of persons with disabilities feature at the bottommost of the pyramid. The need of the hour is to speak in uniform voices for the rights of everyone in the society.
The discourse on rights of persons with disabilities should be taught in schools, colleges, universities, which would play a pivotal role in sensitising people and bringing the problems of persons with disabilities in the mainstream discourse. This would not happen on its own but would require an effective collaboration of academicians, state, disability rights activists and members of civil society. The state should also broaden the scope of Article (15 ) of the constitution to include disability as a ground on which a person is not discriminated. This would strengthen the foundation of the constitution of liberty, equality and fraternity. This would also give legal protection to persons with disabilities as there is rampant discrimination in availing equal opportunities in education, employment, etc.