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In 1939, during World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered a widespread ‘mercy killing’ of the disabled. This Nazi Euthanasia programme was code-named Aktion TR and was instituted to eliminate ‘life unworthy of life’. As one of the newer disciplines in academia, studies on disability has seen a remarkable expansion and development in little more than two decades. Disability is a mental or a physical condition that limits an individual's movements and senses. However, disability in India takes roots to superstitious beliefs as various prejudices were projected on them. Infants born with any kind of disability were either buried alive or killed, and those who managed to survive were treated as the low – born due to the so-called ‘sins’ of their past life or sins committed by their ancestors.

Till the year 2001, the disabled population of India were never considered to be a part of the Indian population. However, India is now a part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, having signed the treaty on 30th March 2007 and authenticated it on 1st October 2007.

People with disabilities in India are often considered to be incapable as the non - disabled individuals thereby discriminating them and diminishing their part of capabilities and talents. In fact, a number of disabled people are also marginalised based on their social status, caste, and especially gender, as the women are more a part of the subaltern than the men. 5% of the world’s female population comprise disabled women and are considered ‘not woman enough’. They also become a victim of sexual assault as can be seen in the Chennai rape case of a 16-year-old girl with learning disabilities who was repeatedly raped by three men, including a senior citizen.

Javed Abidi, an Indian activist and the founder of the Disability Rights Group, who also served as the director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in India, revealed in an interview on the Indian television show Satyamev Jayate that approximately 6-7 crore of the Indian population (5-6 %) are disabled. But as per Census 2011, in India, out of the 121 crore population, about 2.68 crore persons are ‘disabled’ which is 2.21% of the total population.

That is not the end of it, public and private sectors have job vacancies of just 0.5% for the disabled. In schools, hospitals, colleges and other public spaces, there have been made no special arrangements for them. Neither does one find disabled friendly washrooms, or platforms just by the staircase for those with wheelchairs, nor are there any provisions made for them in schools or colleges in regards to benches and desks.

It is essential to understand that the disabled were a victim of certain health complexities rather than considering their challenge as a drawback or underestimating their capabilities or even categorizing them as ‘less fortunate’.

Representation of the Disabled in Films

A theme very frequently used in Hindi films is that disability is a punishment for wrongdoing and misconduct, which was portrayed in Jeevan Naiya (1936), Aadmi (1968), and Dhanwan (1981). Characters with mental disabilities have often been used as comic relief.  Dinesh Bhugra, a consultant psychiatrist criticizes it as reinforcing social stigma. Women with disabilities are misrepresented as compared to men with disabilities: they are included less frequently, they win the love of non – disabled men on rare occasions, it is much likely less for them to self - support financially and they are a part of it only if they are physically attractive. However, an immediate shift takes place after an international disability film festival held in 2005 that was facilitated by the Ability Foundation (an Indian NGO).

Black (2005) made a huge difference by focusing on a female protagonist who was deaf, blind and mute, yet succeeds in her academics after substantial struggle and effort. Other films like Taare Zameen Par (2007) explored the lives of people with dyslexiaprogeriaAsperger Syndrome, and amnesia. Barfi (2012) and Margarita with a Straw (2015) also explore the lives of a hearing and speech impaired and a girl with cerebral palsy, respectively.

There were some other movies preceding it that include Koshish (1972) which explored deafness and Sparsh (1980) which explored blindness.

The social stigma created around the disabled saw a major decrease when conversations about the disabled were made openly by addressing it as a serious issue after the release of these movies. This also affected the government clause for the rights of the disabled persons to be renewed.

Despite this, there are still some movies that portray the ill-founded stereotypes about people with disabilities, like Pyare Mohan (2006), Mehboob ki Mehendi (1971) and Kashish (1972) where it has been observed that men and women are not or never attracted to an individual having a disability.

Extended Provisions and Support

There are provisions made by the DD News Channel for the hearing - impaired as the news broadcasted is interpreted in the Indian Sign Language (ISL) by interpreters like Smriti Nagpal and Meera Bhatia. Yet, most movies that we come across do not provide subtitles for the hearing – impaired to read.

For the visually impaired, the introduction of Braille has done wonders. In spite of that, there is a massive number that has not been reached as most of them cannot afford it.

In Delhi, the Amar Jyoti School has both disabled and non – disabled students studying together. While on one side of the building there are stairs, the other side has ramps. The floor tiles have prints inscribed on them in a way, which would aid the visually challenged to find directions. Similarly, there are some other inclusive educational institutions all over India where specially trained educators are appointed to teach the physically and mentally challenged in an environment that supports their needs. Not just academics, but even for athletics, the children are prepared with the help of social objects that contribute to their learning.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) installed signs of Braille at various monuments in Delhi that explain the historical and cultural significance of the structures for the visually challenged. The move was suggested by Vasant Kumar, Superintendent Archaeologist (Delhi).

There has been a major decrease in the number of polio victims after the Pulse Polio Initiative (PPI). Polio booths were set up throughout the country and volunteers were appointed extensively for vaccination. The campaign got the support of both federal and state governments and was publicised by the Indian film actor Amitabh Bachchan.

The last recorded case of polio was on the 13th of January, 2011, in West Bengal and Gujarat. India came to be recognized as a polio free country by the World Health Organization on 27th March, 2014.

Global Recognition

December 3rd is marked as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations since 1992. According to the United Nations, “the aim behind the annual observance of this day is to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development; and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”

Government Clauses

In 1995, the Persons with Disabilities Act was enacted to meet the needs of the disabled, and to provide them with equal rights and opportunities for jobs and education. This Act was replaced in 2016 with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act which recognised 21 types of disabilities (earlier it was limited to 7) and therefore widened its scope. The Mental Health Care Act (2017) was passed for the rights of those with psychological disabilities.

In September 2013, the Supreme court had passed orders that the central and state government must reserve 3% of government jobs for the disabled.

Today there are millions of people with a single or multiple disabilities which we do not even know of. Despite being a significant part of the Indian population (around 26.8 crores), every disabled person lives a very challenging life. The problem specifically lies in the psyche of the individuals who consider the disabled as a liability or a particular burden which leads to more of their harassment and making them the subaltern. A disabled is hardly seen as an ‘equal member’ of the society and is just left to be sympathised for. The idea is to realise that each individual, whether disabled or non - disabled, must be seen equally and respected, regardless of any social limitations designed to hinder a person.

References :

Asia-Pacific. (2013, May). Archaeological survey of India makes monuments accessible for visitors with vision disabilities. Retrieved from http://globalaccessibilitynews.com/2014/05/13/archaeological-survey-of-india-makes-monuments-accessible-for-visitors-with-vision-disabilities/

Disability and Poverty. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_and_poverty

Disabled Persons in India. A Statistical Profile 2016. Retrieved from https://www.mospi.gov.in

For 8 months trio raped girl with learning difficulties. Retrieved from https://m.timesofindia.com/city/chennai/for-8-months-trio-raped-girl-with-learning-difficulties/articleshow/65864487.cms

In Indian Cinema. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_in_India

Jha, M. (2013, December). India Has a Long Road Ahead to Combat Challenges Faced by Persons With Disabilities. The Wire. Retrieved from https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/thewire.in/health/persons-with-disabilities-challenges-india/amp/

Pulse Polio. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse_Polio

Sarkar. M. (2013, December). Disability in India : The struggles of infrastructure, prejudice and karma. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/27/world/asia/india-disability-challenges/index.html

Shildrick, M. (2012). Critical Disability Studies from: Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies, Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.routledgehandbooks.com Legislation and Government Policy. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_in_India

Sinha, K. (2012, September). Around 95% of Indians with epilepsy don’t get treatment. Times of India. Retrieved from https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/m.timesofindia.com/india/Around-95-of-Indians-with-epilepsy-dont-get-treatment-Study/amp_articleshow/16585514.cms

Why does the women's rights movement marginalise women with disabilities? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/sep/07/why-does-womens-rights-movement-marginalise-women-with-disabilities-nidhi-goyal

Image Credit: Ability Net

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Written By Joanna Anuja Saramarla


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