The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has decided to abandon Viklang (deficient body) and replace it with Divyang (divine body). Large segments of the disability sector are registering protests against the change and asking to be referred to as persons with disabilities. The objection is not limited to Divyang, the sector also questions use of terms such as “specially challenged” or “special persons” or any other terminology, which attempts to be patronisingly kind.
Since the effort to change the name is prompted by benevolence, movers of the initiative are baffled at the protest. After all, a deficient body is being made into a divine body, what is the problem? In order to assist dialogue and enable informed understanding, this piece explains what the problem is.
To be shown up in comparison with another and not to be seen as yourself. Persons with disabilities have been on the receiving end of mind-body shaming, be it from family, doctors, or the world at large. The protocols of comparison, do not allow the disabled body to be accepted on its own terms. For that acceptance to happen, it is important that the body and mind is described as it exists in the real world. A mis-description prevents acquaintance with the persons for whom laws, policies and programmes are being planned. Thus resources may be expended, initiatives may be launched, but these resources could be spent and initiatives launched not on what is desired by persons with disabilities, but what the non- disabled world believe they need.
For this perception to be corrected, it is important that persons with disabilities are consulted with as persons with disabilities and not provided for, whether as unfortunate or divine others. To enable the non-disabled world to see them as they are, persons with disabilities are rejecting terminology such as visually challenged, or specially-abled and instead asserting with pride that they are blind, deaf or mad.
Disability as part of human condition
Divine bodies reside in rare climes. Their divineness sets them apart, it does not allow for people with disabilities to meld with the crowd in its ordinariness. In terms of numbers, persons with disabilities would always be a minority but not a miniscule group. They have a large enough presence in this world, with similar if not the same aspirations as the rest of humanity. To see disability as part of the human condition as persons with disabilities as part of humanity, it is this umanness which requires continues acknowledgement. Some persons with disabilities, like other humans have clocked achievements which when achieved with their particular kinds of minds and bodies is both exceptional and unbelievable.
However these achievements, in the disabled world are as exceptional as any out of the ordinary effort by any person whether with or without disability. The fact of exceptional achievement in the non-disabled world, does not prevent arrangements from being made for ordinary humans.
In comparison, the world has been on a denial mode with people with disabilities. Consequently both the real, virtual and normative worlds have been created without admitting their presence. For inclusion to happen in form and substance, the presence of persons with disabilities needs to be accepted as every day, ordinary and of this world. The Divyang approach casts persons with disabilities as extraordinary.
Whilst provision has to be made for ordinary persons; the extraordinary make place for themselves. And since persons with disabilities are divinely extraordinary, both state and society have just to admit and applaud. For all persons with disabilities to obtain inclusion, it is the ordinariness and not the extraordinariness of persons with disabilities, which needs acknowledgement. A process, which the Divyang approach could jeopardise.
Does not even destigmatise
The advocates of the changed terminology could negate all the above arguments by pointing to the destigmatising potential of the new terminology. Insofar as social attitudes have operated as the tallest barrier to the inclusion of persons with disabilities, the celebratory terminology at least would help in lowering it. This argument does not fly. Innumerable studies have found that change of terminology if not accompanied by empowering initiatives does little for excluded populations. Instead the so-called positive terminology starts carrying the pejorative meaning. The earlier sections of this piece have already pointed out why the “being kind” language is not a suitable vehicle to drive change for persons with disabilities.
My life, my name
Lastly, and most importantly, persons with disabilities have rejected use of the term, as they find it exclusionary and patronising. Persons with disabilities won the right to speak for themselves with the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention, which India ratified in 2007 requires States to consult with disabled people and their organisations before finalising any law, policy or program which impacts persons with disabilities. Such large commitments should at the least begin with the right to a name of their own choice.
Amita Dhanda is a Prof at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.