I am a professional who happens to have a visual impairment. On a recent air trip from Nagpur to Mumbai, I was fortunate to find myself seated beside a leading industrialist. I looked forward to have an hour-long conversation with him because, ffor any young professional, these are rare golden opportunities to learn, grow and network. Sadly, the experience was a huge disappointment. Far from having an enriching discussion on business, the Indian economy or capital markets, my visual disability seemed to be the only focal point of our conversation.
Though I initially felt flattered by his concern, I was soon put off. It was evident to me that my co-passenger was only doling out false sympathy and praise without actually attempting to understand my challenges.
Over the past few years, as I have begun to venture out independently in professional and social circles, such experiences have becomecommonplace. Most disabled persons face a similar predicament. People such as my co-passenger seek to put us on a pedestal by using superlatives such as “inspiring”, “super humans”, “specially abled” and the like. The suggestion by Narendra Modi that we should be called “divyang” (divine body) doesn’t make things easier.
The media, for its part, covers our success stories as an attempt to inspire the masses.
To an extent, such gestures are justified. People with Disabilities have to cope with major physical or mental handicaps to accomplish their goals. Their stories could serve as a good catalyst for others with similar dreams. Moreover, expressing appreciation for People with Disabilities could stimulate them to scale higher peaks and break more barriers.
Highlighting the accomplishments of a Person with Disabilities in the mainstream media, apart from spreading greater zeal and optimism, helps create a more open and inclusive society.
However, overall, the behaviour of the media and society towards People with Disabilities is very disheartening. Instead of genuine acclaim, we mostly get either cloying sympathy or excessive glorification of our achievements.
Such an approach is disturbing for several reasons.
Ableism and sympathy
Most of the acclaim received by People with Disabilities from the media and society stems from feelings of ableism and sympathy. Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that able-bodied individuals are superior. People with this attitude perceive Persons with Disabilities as objects of charity who lack the wherewithal to stand on their feet.
Thus, even fairly routine and mundane actions by People with Disabilities, such as independently eating at a fast-food outlet or travelling in the train from Bandra to Borivali in Mumbai are hyped as acts of bravery.
The truth is that over the past couple of decades, People with Disabilities have made considerable progress in all spheres, from sports to science, even outperforming the so-called able-bodied individuals on many occasions. Such coverage is condescending and patronising. Instead of comforting and encouraging Persons with Disabilities, it may actually embarrass them.
Over-glorification of disability
For any Person with Disabilities, overcoming her disability to achieve her goal is laudable. However, it is a folly to consider this as the sole marker of her success and label her as “inspirational”. Apart from overcoming her disability, a Person with Disabilities may have achieved many remarkable feats that also deserve recognition.
Recently I watched the interview of the first visually challenged person to break into a prestigious business school for his Masters. Further reading showed that he had many other accomplishments such as finishing his undergraduate education from a renowned university with excellent grades, gaining fruitful work experience at leading organisations and working to help other Persons with Disabilities on their journeys.
This man had not just overcome his blindness, but he also had a series of other commendable achievements that truly set him apart from the crowd. Sadly, the interview majorly centred around his blindness.
Similarly, apart from disability, a Person with Disabilities may face impediments on other grounds, such as gender, religion, caste, race and the like. These may be equally challenging to overcome. By making disability the focal point of the discussion, such aspects are completely ignored.
Focus only on the ends
The space given to People with Disabilities is generally based on them achieving a specific goal (say, cracking the civil services or climbing a mountain). There is little or no appreciation of the “means” by which the goal is achieved. This makes the appreciation very superficial and baseless. The journey of the Person with Disabilities to reach the same destination is much more challenging compared to her able-bodied peers and must also be covered appropriately.
For instance, I scored excellent grades in taxation, by far the toughest subject in the entire Company Secretary course. Apart from studying a very expansive course and attempting a lengthy and difficult question paper, I had to grapple with other challenges. To access the course material, a portion of the study material had to be scanned and then thoroughly proof-read word by word. The remaining portions consisting of multiple flow charts, diagrams and tables had to read and explained to me by a physical reader.
In addition, during the exam, all this had to be effectively dictated by me to my scribe. If my excellent grades are only highlighted as “super human’”accomplishments, it not only demeans my struggles, but also ignores the kind support and cooperation of a host of well-wishers who facilitated my progress.
I wish the media and society would lay greater emphasis on how a Person with Disabilities has achieved a particular milestone, rather than end up with excessively glorifying the milestone itself. This will not only conjure greater respect and recognition for Persons with Disabilities, but will serve as a guiding light to another person in similar circumstances, dreaming of similar accomplishments.
Treating Persons with Disabilities as celebrities and excessive glorification of their accomplishments may, apart from embarrassing them, even result in discontentment among the able-bodied who may have achieved similar accomplishments by encountering much more grievous circumstances: for example, a sighted son of an impoverished migrant would face much greater hardships than the blind son of a wealthy businessman.
Notwithstanding all this, I would acknowledge that things have improved significantly over the past decade. There are some interviews of Persons with Disabilities that are well conducted, and many able-bodied people show genuine concern and curiosity about our lives.
My blindness has often facilitated interesting conversations which have become a springboard for long-term relationships.
I hope the numbers increase.
Turab Chimthanawala is a Company Secretary in Mumbai.
December 3 is International Day of Disabled Persons.