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A For Ableism: On Discrimination Hidden In Plain Sight

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Living with disability in modern society. Representative image. Source: Outlook India

I sat at the dentist’s clinic, heads down, scrolling mindlessly through the social media feed. While waiting for my turn to come and skimming the countless images that the algorithm stirred up on my screen, a particular picture caught my eye. A pair of old, worn-out shoes had the following words typed in bold letters: “I complained about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” Under it, there were hashtags ‘grateful’, ‘motivational quote’, ‘inspiration’ and everything else that fell under the self-improvement umbrella. Along with hundreds of likes, comments and reposts, of course.

I stopped for a brief second. For some reason, this reminded me of something, a word, that I had read a few weeks ago and then completely forgotten about. I tried to remember what it was and then after struggling for some time, at the eureka moment, it struck me. The word was ‘ableism’. A quick Google search defined ableism as “discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/ or people who are perceived to have disabilities. Ableism characterises persons who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled.”

Perhaps the motivational quote was in good intention and only to motivate. But, to say that one is ‘luckier’ than the other based on something that the other person couldn’t choose, is uninformed, to say the least. And insensitive. It reeks of casual but sure discrimination. Yet unlike other types of discrimination, ableism is so subtle that we see it every day but we do not even know as we have become desensitised to it. Rather, we contribute to it without even realising it.

While I waited for my name to be called as the last person before I had gone inside, I looked around. I had reached the clinic after climbing four flights of stairs. It made me think that if a person in a wheelchair wanted to visit this clinic on their own, it wouldn’t be possible. And, this is only a small example of subtle ableism. Not because it is upright discrimination against people with disabilities (which is termed as ‘disablism’) but it is discrimination still because it favours ‘abled-bodied’ people.

Courtesy: Google Images

India has a high prevalence of persons living with a disability. This also means that there is a higher level of stigma associated with it. The Indian Constitution through the Persons with Disability Act, 1995 defines disability under part 2(i) as persons living with low visions, blindness, locomotor disability, leprosy cured, psychological illness, hearing impairment, and mental retardation, among others.

There are strict laws against discrimination of any sort, but they are often only limited to being words on paper. People with disabilities are often looked down upon as useless burdens who cannot contribute to the community. The stigma associated with a disability is such that it is seen as a ‘curse’ or a result of past actions. And that just because they perceive life differently than the abled population, they need to be ‘fixed’ or are seen as ‘abnormal’.

Disability demographics in India. Courtesy: indiability.org (2012)

Once when I sat in front of my ophthalmology textbook to study, for some unknown reasons, I had a thought. ‘What if I go blind someday?’ Then I remembered what I had read some time ago, about how people who cannot see the world, perceive it. And that, even if it seemed to me that visual perception is paramount to experiencing life, there were other ways to live that did not include seeing things. That did not invalidate the experience of living.

At the moment, there are around 285 million people with visual impairments in the world. Do they deserve any less right to live because of their disability? The answer is of course they don’t. The same goes for anyone else with any form of disability. However, the world works in a way that is specifically made to exclude them. How many restaurants have their menus in Braille? How many places are accessible to people who have a motor disability? How many of us know the basics of sign language? Are educational institutes friendly to people with learning disabilities of any degree?

The present fabric of the society is dynamic, infused with all inclusive youth who do not tolerate any hand-me-down baton of oppression and despotism. And to exclude someone based on something they didn’t choose is blatant discrimination. People are not defined by a single trait of their physical appearance or by a social construct like gender and yet, people are defined by their disability. A person in wheelchair can do everything an abled person can, can have the same ideas and want fulfilment like everyone else. An autistic child deserves the same empathy and love like any other child. However, their stories are so underrepresented, their voices are suppressed by unwanted pity party, that the only time they are shown in positive light is when they become ‘inspiring stories’ after fighting against a system that is designed for their exclusion.

Children with disabilities by age groups across India.
Courtesy: UNESCO, 2011

Disability is mostly portrayed in the media as either a story of inspiration or a teary tale of misfortune. A particular movie that I do not want to name, about a rich, good looking man wishing to end his life after an accident left him paralysed in a wheelchair, created an uproar in the disability community because it reinforced the age old perception that only a fully lived life is a fully abled life. And that a life with disability is not worth living. If we know people who have encountered disability, we know that they wouldn’t want to kill themselves but would want to be treated respectfully as any other person.

Another aspect of living with a disability in any form also includes being dehumanised. By being defined by their disability, it makes the non-abled community look incapable of basic human need like sexuality and the desire to express it. It is seen as a pure taboo or some kind of weird fetish. This is ableism at its finest. To dissociate some thing as human and fundamental as sexual needs from a group of individuals. To express disgust at the idea that people with disability, who are not much different from abled people, can also have sexual desires.

Yet, like a perverse paradox of some sort, people with disabilities, women in particular, are at a much higher risk of sexual assault. According to a 2018 report by Human Right Watch (HRWs), Invisible victims of Sexual Violence in India: Access to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities in India, women and girls with disabilities not only face a higher risk of sexual violence but also face significant barriers to justice. And in these cases, it has been seen that the blame is often more on the victim than the culprit.

Report on violence against girls and women with disabilities during Covid Pandemic. Courtesy: un.org

United Nations observes 3rd December as International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is to recognise disability inclusion as an essential condition to upholding human rights, sustainable development and peace and security. According to the UN, people with disabilities, around one billion people, are one of the most excluded groups in our society and are among the hardest hit in the 2020 COVID crisis in terms of fatalities. This only highlights how ableist the world is and how difficult it is for around one seventh of the world to access basic rights like health care among so many basic necessities that they are denied.

How sad it is to think that in a world where people are planning to go to Mars, there is no all-inclusive system that does not leave out anyone based on their disability.

The use of ableist language happens every day. It has become so embedded in our conscience that we hardly even think about it. “Are you mentally retarted?”, “You couldn’t see it? You must be blind.” “Stop walking like a limp.” “She is a psycho.” “You can’t understand that simple math? Are you dumb?” Using phrases like these imply that a disability makes a person lesser than and that they are inferior. Language can also be a tool of oppression. As self-ware individuals, we should be careful on not propagating an ableist culture that devalues an individual on any ground.

Yes, impairments, chronic illnesses or any form of disability pose real difficulties for the person, but the real barrier for them lie in the way they are perceived by the society. The prejudice and unjust treatment against them, by the system and by the people around make it more challenging. The idea of a ‘normal’ person is flawed because no one and everyone fits the criterion.

A person in a wheelchair or a person with Down’s syndrome has the same right to live, exist and love. People are often uncomfortable about bodies that do not fit the idea of what it should look and work like. However, by ensuring that they are included in conversations, talking about it, calling out on people who might be propagating ableism without knowing it, learning and unlearning what we were taught and know about disability are all important steps for a better, inclusive society.

Finally, reflecting back on the quote that I had read, I would make a few changes; “I complained about how no one was doing anything until I looked at the mirror and saw a person who could do something but chose to do nothing.” The only person we should be thankful for that we aren’t is someone who does nothing about the things they complain about.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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