‘Can a dyslexia programme help a 40–50 year-old child?’ said Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a chuckle to a gathering of students at IIT Roorkee. This was a tasteless statement in which he was alluding to his political rival, Rahul Gandhi.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that Prime Minister Modi made such a statement — it wasn’t his first time. As the Gujarat chief minister, while trying to make a seemingly progressive statement, he made an unbelievably casteist and ableist remark, drawing parallels between Dalits and children with intellectual disability.
These statements are not coming from a place of lack of understanding but form part of a political status quo — across party lines, politicians in India regularly take jibes at their opponents by deliberately deploying crass ableism.
PA Sangma, when contesting the presidential election with BJP’s backing, infamously said that the country needs a ‘functional PM, not a deaf and dumb one’, while PM Modi during his 2014 campaign made yet another discriminatory comment, stating that India does not want a ‘handicapped government.’
In 2015, CPI(M) MLA Elamaram Kareem attributed the losses of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation to the concessions granted to people with disabilities, which triggered a massive row in the state.
In 2017, actor-turned-politician Raja Ravi, who joined the DMK, mocked the party’s rivals by likening them to children with disabilities that wanted to play with abled children. He did this while making derogatory facial expressions during his speech, which was widely condemned and saw disability groups and activists taking to the streets in protest.
These are just a few examples of the widespread insensitivity and lack of empathy that characterises political discourse by the leaders of the world’s largest democracy.
According to the 2011 census, 26 million people or 2.2% of the Indian population is disabled, a figure exceeding Haryana’s population. However, the World Bank estimates the figure to be significantly higher, between 40 to 80 million, equalling Poland’s population on the lower side and of Germany’s on the higher.
The Election Commission pulled off the world’s largest democratic election, with facilities to help people with locomotor disabilities to exercise their franchise, yet no national or regional party has fielded any candidate with a physical disability.
As mental health and other invisible disabilities are more difficult to quantify on election affidavits, and given the nature of the general stigma around them, no elected representative or political candidate has spoken about any mental health issues they may be living with. On the contrary, the Indian Psychiatry Association has had to advise politicians to exercise restraint while taking potshots at their opponents during elections and refrain from using slurs like ‘mental’ or ‘go to a mental hospital’ while doing so.
The 16th Lok Sabha saw disability being discussed in both houses of Parliament, with the Lok Sabha raising 51 questions on disability and the Rajya Sabha raising 40. The questions ranged from whether separate governmental departments exist in states to look at disability affairs, to sensitising government officials and making public spaces accessible, to the provision of disability quotas in government jobs. It also saw the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which lists 21 different disabilities.
Yet, disability and mental health are rarely the linchpins of political conversations, with work on accessibility and inclusion sparse at best.
BJP, in its 2014 manifesto, proposed ‘identifying people with special needs, making public spaces more accessible to them and providing higher tax relief for their families.’ In 2015, the Accessible India campaign was launched and the Prime Minister suggested a change in nomenclature to address people with disabilities as ‘divyang’ or ‘divine bodied’ instead of ‘viklang’ or ‘disabled’. A seemingly well-intentioned move, but one that reeks of ableism, and does little to address the real problems of discrimination. Calling people with disabilities ‘divine’ instead of thinking of them and treating them at par with abled people further marginalises them — countless people with disabilities have talked about the problems with this kind of language.
And it doesn’t translate into any real change — we are still far from achieving goals like driving licences and designated parking for people with disabilities, cars which can be used by both the abled and disabled, and accessible pavements so that people with disabilities can independently traverse public spaces.
The Congress manifesto covered disability only as an afterthought by including a provision for ‘life and disability cover’, entirely overlooking measures for education, employment and non-discrimination.
The 2019 manifestoes improved marginally, with the BJP emphasising the ‘accessibility of public spaces, strengthening pre-school, and Anganwadi systems to recognise disability at an early age and offering higher FD rates.’ The Congress put in slightly more thought, to not only emphasise accessibility and non-discrimination, but also the sensitisation of ministers and government departments.
The Congress also proposed making all aid devices GST free, ensuring quality education is imparted, and the inclusion of Indian Sign Language (ISL) as part of the country’s official languages. This could have been prompted by the BJP including ISL during the live coverage of the Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations.
The problem isn’t restricted to manifestos alone, but applies to political agendas as a whole.
Women with disabilities enjoy even less bodily autonomy than their abled counterparts and are frequent targets of sexual violence. A Human Rights Watch report from 2018 highlights the challenges women with disabilities face in obtaining justice, right from registering their complaint to having their trauma being taken seriously, to getting medical treatment and adequate compensation from the judicial system. While politicians state that women’s safety must be ensured, they forget to mention how some women, specifically women with disabilities, are even more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is another strong example of how people with disabilities are routinely ignored by the government. Since 1984, the central and state governments have not been able to provide adequate compensation to the families affected. The final compensation most people received was between Rs 25,000 and Rs 1,00,000, while the toxic waste accumulating in the area has seeped into the water. This impacts children with disabilities affected directly by the event.
This lack of prioritisation of disability extends to concerns of accessibility as well.
There are a few stray positive examples. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has been championing the cause of accessibility. Since 2014, ASI has selected 10 monuments nationally to install Braille signage at, published a guidebook of northeastern monuments in Braille, and selected 50 monuments specifically in Gujarat that would also have Braille-signage after Ahmedabad was chosen to become a ‘smart city’. The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has asked for an accessibility audit of public spaces, while the Meghalaya cabinet approved increasing the quota for the disabled in government jobs.
However, not all government bodies have prioritised accessibility.
Most state government establishments and private companies have not notified and registered their Equal Opportunity Policy, two years after the Disability Act was passed. The Accessible India campaign launched after the Disability Act with a view to make 50% of all public transport and buildings fully accessible by June 2018. For this exercise, 1,707 buildings were identified and pointers were given by auditors across 57 cities on how to make spaces more accessible. But four years on, only less than 10% of all public buildings and transport have been made fully accessible.
After the new series of currency notes were launched, a PIL was filed in the Delhi High Court in 2017 after an online petition by The Blind Graduates Forum of India (BGFI) stated that visually impaired persons faced difficulty carrying out daily transactions, as the currency notes were indistinguishable from one another. When the last series of notes was released, the RBI held consultations in 2009 and 2011 with committees with visually impaired citizens, that decided on tactile markers which would help people distinguish between the notes. The new notes have not only forsaken the markers but the difference in the size of the notes is also greatly reduced, further adding to problems.
Unless you’re extremely privileged in other ways, getting access to basic rights and services becomes an immense obstacle if you’re a person with a disability in India.
Getting an education becomes a hurdle as lakhs of students in the country need to travel far from their homes to reach a school. Even if a person with any disability were to travel to a school, the space itself is likely to be inaccessible in multiple ways, all stemming from ableism.
Avenues for employment and opportunities for career growth that the abled can access much more easily are not available, in either government or private jobs. There is a basic lack of public infrastructure designed with everyone in mind, and not just the abled.
Most politicians have been circumventing the conversation and failing to enable a constructive dialogue on disability unless they have to use it for votes.
The current environment is more receptive to talking about disabilities and mental health than it was earlier. The time is ripe for elected representatives to remove the ableism from not only their discourse, but their agendas and approaches, and act on the promises they have been making to people with disabilities.
Akriti Paracer is a writer and environmentalist based in Delhi. She can be found debating politics on Twitter (@akrii_p) or giving book recommendations on Instagram (@akritiparacer).
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Note: This article previously incorrectly stated that MLA Elamaram Kareem spoke about the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. It has been updated to the correct location, Kerala.