Disability And Pavlov's Dogs

05/02/2017 1:59 AM IST | Updated 09/02/2017 3:39 PM IST

In many cultures, disability is seen as "evil" or as something to fear. It's not uncommon in mythology and popular culture to have villains with a limp or a hunched back or some form of disability. Examples from our own culture include Dhritharastra in the Mahabharata and Manthara in the Ramayana.

These evil characters didn't just happen to have disabilities. Instead, their disabilities were an integral part of their carefully constructed identities. When society is repeatedly presented with such texts and filmic representations, it leaves an impact in the collective psyche and shapes unfavourable attitudes towards the disabled. The individuality of the actual disabled person begins to matter less than the archetype he or she represents.


How the portrayal of disability in a mass medium affects the attitudes of society towards disabled people can be explained with reference to Pavlov's infamous experiment. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who got a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his experiment on "classical conditioning". In the experiment, Pavlov presented his dogs with food and rang a bell at the same time; each time, the dogs salivated. Then, Pavlov removed the food from the equation. He merely rang the bell. Then too the dogs salivated, just upon hearing the bell. The mere association was enough to trigger a physiological response.

A Pavlovian process could be shaping people's reflexive response to disability.

Now coming back to the point, a Pavlovian process could be shaping people's reflexive response to disability. Here, readers or viewers repeatedly look at portrayals of disabled persons as cunning, evil, talking or walking in a particular way. They then attach the attributes to any disabled person they encounter in real life, whether or not such a person is actually evil or cunning. In Pavlovian terms, they have been "classically conditioned" to view disabled people in a certain light. Thus, in societies where disabled people are portrayed negatively, it leads to the perpetuation of negative attitudes towards them.

The next factor resulting in the association of violence with disability is that of poverty. Poverty and disability go hand in hand due to various factors. Poverty can make people disabled due to a range of factors such as an increased susceptibility to diseases, malnutrition, poor health facilities, etc. Disability can also lead to poverty. This is because a person with disability has a much lower chance of getting employed than an able-bodied person; if they do get employed their wages are very poor. The disabled, therefore, comprise among the poorest segments of populations across societies.

Poverty in itself is a mark of dissatisfaction, inequality and prevalent "structural violence" in a society, and has the potential to erupt into actual violence. This correlation between disability and poverty establishes the point that societies with more disabled people are less developed and more violent in nature because of more poverty existing there.

The World Bank disability overview points out:

"Persons with disabilities, on average as a group, are more likely to experience adverse socio-economic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates. A country's economic, legislative, physical, and social environment may create or maintain barriers to the participation of people with disabilities in economic, civic, and community life."

Thus, in every sphere, disabled person's life is pervaded with violence in some form or the other, the magnitude of this violence might differ, but its existence can't be denied.

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