Discrimination against physical disability is wrong as it does not imply mental disability.
Social discrimination faced by People with Disabilities (PWD) is a pressing yet little discussed problem. According to the Oxford and Collins dictionaries on Sociology, “Discrimination” is defined as “the process by which a member, or members, of a socially defined group is, or are, treated differently (especially unfairly) because of his/her/their membership of that group…this unfair treatment arises from socially derived beliefs each group holds about the other, and patterns of dominance and oppression, viewed as expressions of a struggle for power and privilege.” (Krieger, 2001).
According to the World Health Organisation, around 10 per cent of the world’s population are people with disabilities. At 650 million, they are the world’s largest minority. A total of 80 per cent of PWDs live in developing countries such as ours, within their homes, hiding from the social discrimination, ostracism and hostility, both from the family and the community.
From the moment a person is born with disabilities, he or she is considered a shame to the family, a reparation for past sins and a lifelong curse that will be the cause for the family to be looked down upon by the community.
The discrimination which exhibits itself in varying forms of neglect to the childs physical and emotional needs, ensures that few children with disabilities survive beyond the first eight to ten years of childhood and if they do, they learn rather early in life to be resilient, self reliant and expect little by way of emotional and physical support.
One of the common and subconscious errors non-disabled people make when interacting with PWDs is to think that a physical disability implies a mental disability as well. This attitude allows for the family of a PWDs into believing that all decisions regarding the life of the PWD automatically rests with the family. The PWD may be polio affected and confined to a wheelchair, or have spina befida, a limb missing, speech and hearing impaired or be visually impaired but they, in all likelihood will have a normal Intelligence Quotient, experience emotions like you and I, think, act, like you and I and are therefore little different. Yet, our minds are so trained to grade “normal” as physically whole, that a person with a physically imperfect figure would be considered “abnormal” and an aberration. Something we are not comfortable with. The discrimination gets harsher for PWDs who have a mental illness, developmental retardation and women, who are viewed as soft targets, for use and abuse.
“Inclusion” in a relatively new concept in India. There is a growing belief that the only way to end the social discrimination faced by PWDs is to increase the opportunities for social inclusion. It is however only in the last five years that the Government has involved itself with steps to make education in the country ‘inclusive’, by making it mandatory for children with disabilities be allowed to attend regular schools that non disabled children go to.
The idea being that there is no better place to shed misconceptions about disability than at an early age and no equalising place like a classroom. There is no doubt much to be achieved from inclusive education but it can only be hoped that with time and exposure, non disabled people will be acquainted on the abilities of PWDs.
It is only in the last decade that PWDs are beginning to assert themselves and view themselves as equals.
The Government has taken cognizance of this discriminatory attitude and enforced numerous laws like the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, but the movement acknowledges that things can change only if the community makes a commitment to treat PWDs as their equals, to give them space, a fora in public to make their presence felt and provide them an opportunity to live life, building on their abilities rather than their disability.
(The author is a founding member of disAbilityFirst, a disability group working on advocacy issues)
The below article appeared in the B’lore edition of Deccan Herald on 19th June 2007