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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.