I was having dinner with a friend at a restaurant in Delhi a few weeks back when a hunched-over elderly gentleman struggled into the restaurant, helped by two people holding his arms. It was clear that he was battling his body and over-exerting himself. Perhaps life would’ve been easier had he just chosen to use a wheelchair?
This isn’t the first instance I have seen of someone avoiding a wheelchair that could have empowered his life. I am often requested by friends to “motivate” or “inspire” their grand parents to use a wheelchair. Often, these grandparents prefer being restricted to home or even just their bed rather than use a wheelchair. When I raise this with the grandparent, I’m often told, “But I don’t have a problem like him.”
The root cause of that, I feel, is the “othering” of Persons with Disabilities. Disability is not looked at as part of a person but instead becomes their main identity.
Historically, language has done no favour to Persons with Disabilities. Those with developmental disabilities have been referred to by words that have negative connotations like “idiots”, “morons” and “feeble minded”. Those with physical disabilities have been referred to as “lame”. “Lame” itself developed negative connotations over time with terms like “lame duck” for a failed competitor or “lame excuse” for one that is not convincing. The word “midget” actually originated from the word “midge”, means small fly. It eventually become a stereotype for dwarfs that perform in freak circus shows.
The 1970s saw a tectonic shift in how disability was perceived in the US. As disabled in battle war veterans returned from the Vietnam war, they noticed physical infrastructure that wasn’t accessible and that were discriminatory. Through the ’70s and ’80s there were protests, sit-ins (where Persons with Disabilities entered federal buildings and didn’t leave till their demands were heard) and cases in courts.
It was in light of these actions that in the 1980s that the Democratic National Convention coined the term “Differently Abled” to refer to Persons with Disabilities. Then came “specially abled” (sorry, we don’t have any special powers), “special needs” (doesn’t everyone have needs?) and India’s “divyang” (I like my wine, I’m not divine). Euphemisms protect society from accepting hard realities and give it an excuse to not act on them.
The disabled community is as diverse as any. There are many Persons with Disabilities who would prefer being called “Differently Abled”. However, I do have strong disagreements with this term. After all, isn’t everyone differently abled? I might be a good writer, others might be good singers, traders or chefs. I have also always hated the term as discounting my efforts: when I excelled in school, others often argued that “since god had taken way one thing, he had compensated me with another” . It is a term created by the so-called able bodied to make themselves feel good.
However, my biggest problem of the term “differently abled” is that it leads to no change on ground. A change in terminology will not lead to better physical infrastructure, changed attitudes, improved education or reduction in discrimination in employment.
Some are born with a disability, others acquire it during their lifetime. One might even be temporarily disabled for part of their lives. Disability is only part of a person’s identity. My disability certificate states that I’m “above 80% disabled”. That’s as much part of my identity as any other random aspect of it.
It’s time we normalise disability by calling the disabled “disabled.” While we are at that. let’s systematically work towards removing physical, attitudinal, legal and technological barriers so that Persons with Disabilities can live a dignified life.