When people talk about disability, their vocabulary often reflects a charitable outlook. The word “suffering”, for instance, is frequently used when they speak about disability. These attitudes form an intangible wall of social exclusion that gets ingrained in society over the years. To alter this prejudicial social mindset, it is vital to change such phraseology.

That is what prompted one of the authors of this article (Shashank Pandey) to write a handbook titled Attitudinal Barrier and Framework for Disability Sensitive Language. Drafted for the Goa State Commission for Persons with Disabilities, it was released at the Purple Fest event at Rashtrapati Bhavan on February 26.

Often, when planners are thinking about disability, the idea of reasonable accommodation has been restricted to certain preconceived ideas of accessibility relating to infrastructure, such as providing ramps, lifts, Braille and sign language. Even the media is locked into this view of accessibility.

The handbook aims to shed light on how social attitudes create barriers for persons with disabilities – the “attitudinal barrier”, as the Rights of Person with Disabilities Act, 2016, describes it.

Understanding attitudinal barriers

Attitudinal barriers include diverse perceptions, cognitive biases and discriminatory sentiments that society harbours towards Persons with Disabilities. These barriers are nurtured to evolve stereotypes around disability.

They usually manifest in the use of negative language to refer to Persons with Disabilities as a burden, being dangerous or pitiable. They are also evident when Persons with Disabilities are romanticised by making them seem extraordinary or superhuman. If they are already discriminated against due to gender, age, ethnicity, race and sexuality, this becomes a double whammy – a situation known as intersectional discrimination.

For instance, using insensitive words such as mad, lunatic, idiot and mental illness to refer to a person with psycho-social disability creates a perception in the user’s psychology that they are dangerous, poor or incapable of decision-making due to their illness.

Similarly, categorising Persons with Disabilities as specially-abled or Divyang (person with divine limbs), as the government does, to project them as having superhuman-like characteristics is itself discriminatory. As the United Nation notes, an individual’s disability is “a part of life and of human diversity, [and] not something to be dramatised or sensationalised”.

Knowingly or unknowingly, attitudinal barriers become the first wall of segregation between Persons with Disabilities and other individuals that curtail opportunities, accessibility and equality. It is only when this intangible wall is demolished that tangible barriers can be addressed.

Disability-sensitive language

The handbook suggests a framework for the adoption of disability-sensitive language in all forms of communication. This is especially relevant for the media, which often aids in propagating the attitudinal barrier of society towards Persons with Disabilities through its platform. For instance, there is a common tendency of media outlets to report news on Persons with Disabilities in an exclusionary tone using phrases like “despite their disability”. To avoid this, the following framework is suggested.

Firstly, the use of person-centric communication. People-first language is the most widely accepted form of language, which emphasises the person first rather than their disability. This type of language is used in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is considered respectful and dignifying.

For instance, instead of saying “disabled children”, we could say “children with disabilities”. However, there are some exceptions to this. For instance, when referring to persons who are blind, we can say either “blind persons” or “persons who are blind”. This also applies to deaf or deafblind persons.

Secondly, when discussing disability, it is important to be respectful and sensitive to the preferences of Persons with Disability. Like the concept of gender inclusivity, one could ask a disabled person how they prefer to be referred to. While initiating a conversation, a simple sentence like “Is it okay if I refer to you as a blind person?” can have transformative implications.

Thirdly, it is vital that disability is mentioned only when it is relevant. Sensationalism around disabilities leads to overemphasis on the impairment of an individual. For instance, if one is discussing quality assessment for Braille documents or visual accessibility needs, one can refer to an individual as a “Braille user” or can “read Braille” instead of saying that they are blind.

Fourthly, it’s imperative not to use disability as a derogatory parallel to perpetuate stereotypes. This is the most common occurrence in our society. Institutions are now working to curb these practices. For instance, the Election Commission of India released a disability-sensitive language guideline for political parties to curb stereotypical and discriminatory language against Persons with Disabilities.

Lastly, the acknowledgement that the disability community is not homogenous. A class of disabled individuals should not be portrayed as representative of the entire community. This leads to overemphasising visible forms of disabilities, such as locomotor or visual. It propagates further exclusion of people with invisible disabilities such as deafness, thalassemia or intellectual disabilities within the disabled population.

Policies and interventions have far relied on the visible aspects of infrastructure barriers. Now, it is time to transition towards attitudinal barriers as, ultimately, societal attitude has the capacity to render even an accessible space inaccessible or exclusionary.

Shashank Pandey is a lawyer based out of Delhi. He authored the Handbook on Attitudinal Barrier and Usage of Disability Sensitive Language.

Nayan Chandra Mishra is a third-year law student at Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.