Why Differently-Abled People Should Be Given Minority Status

10/07/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
Yawar Nazir via Getty Images
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 01: A blind student learns to write Braille at Abhedananda Home, a school for deaf, mute and blind students on September 1, 2015 in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered controlled Kashmir State, India. The school is having difficulty owing to a lack of funds after the government stopped grants to it. The school was established in 1941 and presently teaches 100 special needs children. It was severely damaged in last years September floods, which killed over 200 and damaged property costing billions of dollars. The government declined any help to restore the infrastructure at this school, school authorities said. Disability is an important public health problem, especially in developing countries like India where a majority of the disabled live where accessibility, availability, and utilization of rehabilitation services and its cost-effectiveness are major issues. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

A few days ago, I heard that the Jewish community was given minority status in Maharashtra. It made me recall my class lectures in Jawaharlal Nehru University where I learnt that each one of us is a minority in some form or the other. This is because we carry multiple identities with ourselves at the same time.

Broadly, minorities are generally categorized on the lines of religion, ethnicity, language, sects etc. While minorities usually constitute lower numbers than the majority, this understanding is somewhat superficial. A numerically large population can also be a minority group if they are socially and institutionally discriminated against. It is here that I want to bring in the differently-abled population, which governments across the world tend to not classify as a minority group.

Now, disability cuts across class, caste, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality. However, often, a differently-abled person's first identity among his/her other identities is his/her disability. Reducing disability to just a medical or physical condition is to ignore the fact that this community faces discrimination on the basis of their disability. Disabled people in many countries are attacked, abused and segregated from the mainstream. They are politically alienated, economically deprived and socially ostracized in many countries. India, even after being the home to more than 26.8 million people (as per the 2011 census) suffering with disability has not even started to think in the direction of giving minority status to its differently-abled population.

Many people feel uncomfortable, awkward, disgusted to even be in contact with disabled individuals, and find it impossible to see them as equals.

Calling them "divyang", or the "divine-bodied", shows the patronizing attitude of the government in power. The charity-based approach that successive governments have followed also does no favours to the disabled community. The representation of this population is extremely low in the organized sector of the economy, and indeed, others as well. This is because the mainstream believes that a disabled person cannot do any job well, even if they are qualified and perfectly able to do the work in question. As a result, many disabled people are either unemployed or only trusted with jobs that do not do justice to their abilities.

The mainstream wants to invisibilize differently-abled people. Many people feel uncomfortable, awkward, disgusted to even be in contact with disabled individuals, and find it impossible to see them as equals.

Today, one often hears of how society is becoming sensitized with the help of movies, and TV programmes illuminating the stories of the differently-abled. This is all very well, but for how long will we be in "sensitization" mode? I'd truly believe a change was being effected if more movie directors cast differently-abled actors in their films instead of getting able-bodied performers to play the roles of disabled people. Do they feel that differently-abled people can't act or that they won't look 'good' or 'presentable' on screen?

Providing them with minority status would be a positive step towards ensuring their protection from those who discriminate against them.

The same principle holds for TV news channels. Instead of showing stories of achievement by differently-abled people and giving them awards, why not hire them as news anchors? This will actually empower persons with disability, as gainful employment will elevate their standard of living, their status in society. I have not seen a single differently-abled actor/actress or news anchor in India till date. Isn't it astonishing? Many people taking up disability as a cause célèbre are only using it to boost their own profile.

The disabled population is a "marginalized minority" and they are doubly oppressed in many cases, if they happen to belong to other groups that are also discriminated against - women, Dalits, Adivasis. It is high time now to give people with disability minority status. Governments all over the world need to think and act in this direction.

Providing them with minority status would be a positive step towards ensuring their protection from those who discriminate against them. It would lead to their overall development as new sectors pertaining to disability will start to emerge. Under the ambit of minority studies, disability as a subject could be taught to students. It would redefine the theoretical understanding of the term "minority" and will challenge the accepted notions of its meaning.

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