Do You Really Care for People with Disability?
Let me start this article by introducing myself. My name is Sumit Mehta – a software and web developer by profession and working as a freelancer/consultant. I have two Bachelor-level degrees – One in Indian Classical Music and the other in Computer Science – and a Master’s degree in Computer Science as well. Reading this you would say, “Wow! That looks impressive”. And now if I reveal that I am a person living with disability, the focus will suddenly shift to my disability rather than considering my achievements. To some extent, I can understand this and I don’t have any objections.
This article is my take on the perception of disability in our society. I would also like to share my thoughts on life, expectations, achievements and disability. Hopefully after this article, a few readers would be able to empathise or “live the other side” and become more sensitive to the issue.
Recently I read a news report about a court order which said that any misconduct with persons with disability is cause for punishment or conviction. I truly appreciate the order. But my concern is with the language used by the media to report it. In the Hindi newspaper I read, the article’s headline had the word Nishakt to imply disability. I suddenly realised, isn’t it demeaning to call people with a disability as Nishakt? Nishakt in Hindi means devoid of power or ability. How can this word be used to describe people with disability? If I were truly Nishakt, I would not have got my degrees and would most certainly not have been working in an office and making a living. Thus my first request to the media is to stop using inappropriate words as that in itself is a violation of the court order. The media has a great responsibility in creating awareness especially when the news is highly sensitive.
For a moment, I want to shift the focus of this article to society in general. I would mention two examples here. Couple of years back, my friend with disability was honoured for his exceptional academic achievements. When his name was announced, four people had to come and lift his wheelchair because the stage was high and didn’t have a ramp.
On watching that video, I asked myself:
– When it was known to the organisers that one of the awardee is a wheelchair user, why didn’t they organise it at a place with wheelchair access or make provision for a ramp?
– Secondly, if they didn’t have the sensitivity to treat him with dignity, how much did they really care or did they care at all?
If it had been me in his place, I might have given back the award because it would only have made sense if the place was made accessible to me without making me aware of my differences. Is that too much to expect?
The next example is about a contest that is being held with the name ‘Miss Wheelchair India’. Before we go further, I want to say that I really liked the concept and I appreciate the endeavour. The contest is now set for its second season – Mr Wheelchair India – and I wish them all the best. But I have a very humble request. I would be happy if they could find a better name for the contest. Why would you label someone for the object they use for mobility? It is not something I am ashamed of but should I be identified by it? For instance, will you hold a contest with the name “Mr Cane India” or “Ms Hearing Aid India” or will you have something like “Miss Fat India” for the girls who are going through obesity or are ‘over-weight’. Don’t you think that sounds offensive?
I made the request to one of the people actively involved in the show’s promotion and to my surprise was given a very dismissive and curt answer. I felt disappointed that I could not convey my idea to him. It was perfectly fine with me even if they did not change the name because it is purely their call and I respect it. But I was expecting a sensitive hearing and a convincing reply.
As I said earlier, I have nothing against these shows but labelling is an important aspect.
Coming back to the media, I am not here to criticize everything. But I do have some suggestions because by keeping quiet we cannot bring about change. I have repeatedly faced such issues with Hindi print media. I feel that the English print media chooses words more carefully but I may be wrong. For me the key points are:
1. Disability is a serious and sensitive issue and reporting about the issue should be with compassion but not condescension.
2. In my view, going with descriptive phrases may be an option. For instance, “persons with disability” is apt because it doesn’t label anything. It may be a tad long but I think that is the best phrase to avoid any ambiguities. Words like “handicapped” or “specially-abled” etc also need not be used for the simple fact that we cannot demand equality if we treat ourselves as special. We may be different (like male and female are different but not unequal) but we are neither special nor inferior.
3. Please focus on achievements than on the disability. For example, in a recent news clip about me, I expected them to focus on my rights, ambitions, views, suggestions etc. Instead, much of the clip was used to show me rolling over the bed or how I sit and or how I manage my day to day activities. I had conveyed my strong views about the need for government to enforce the laws to ensure accessibility across the city and the country but for them it was more important to showing me rolling over my bed!
There are many issues in my life (I include every person with disability) – accessibility, social and economic conditions etc. which many may feel is more worthy of discussion, and I do agree they are very important – but the idea of this article was to discuss the mental discrimination that we face around us. It is often not taken into consideration, or brushed aside. While physical discrimination and lack of social and economic independence is a “reality”, discrimination that goes into the mind and thinking of the people or society is much deeper and difficult to change.
(Sumit Mehta’s website: http://www.sumitmehta.net/)