16/10/2015 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

'Psoriasis In The Mind': What Valson Thampu's E-Mail Reveals About Disability Bias In Higher Education

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA JULY 7: St Stephen's College Principal Valson Thampu (C) with Swami Agnivesh, Samajwadi Party leader Kamal Farooqui and others during a press conference on July 7, 2015 in New Delhi, India. The research scholar at Delhi University had accused a professor of chemistry at St. Stephens College, Satish Kumar, of sexually harassing her during the course of her PhD work. She had also released a voice recording about her purported conversation with Thampu and Kumar and alleged that the principal was seeking to protect the professor while trying to dissuade her from filing a complaint. (Photo by Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A former associate professor in philosophy recently wrote an irreverent e-mail to Valson Thampu, principal of St Stephen's College, criticising him for converting the Gandhi Study Circle into the Gandhi-Ambedkar Study Circle.

In response, the principal stated:

People like you, who have wasted a whole life time doing nothing (hope your [sic] have not forgotten your Heidegger) are now paying the price for that cultivated laziness... having become "the nothing" that breaks down into that caste and class attitudinizing, that ill-fitting, megalomaniacal air of self-importance. Of course, you will react when anyone else does anything; for you have done nothing all your life. What a shame, Ramanujan*! I always gave you a long, very long rope, because of your psoriasis. Out of pity. But your psoriasis has spread to your mind over the bedrock of its scandalous inertia. *(name changed)

"...your psoriasis has spread to your mind". My first response was to write to the principal, asking him to take a stroll through hell. The response was deeply personal. Like the professor involved, I suffer from psoriasis, which has often impacted my ability to undertake research. Psoriasis is triggered, among other things, by stress. Long hours of work, coupled with the pressure of having to produce research, provide the classic recipe for flare-ups. I could not have continued with my programme without the support I have received from the administrative and academic staff at my current educational institution.

"For the head of an educational institution to see a chronic health condition as fair game for insulting someone is unacceptable."

As I reflected on the principal's message, I realised that the issue was, in fact, more than just a personal one. For the head of an educational institution to see a chronic health condition as fair game for insulting someone is unacceptable. It reflects a deeper neglect in the way disability access and support is treated in India's educational institutions. Much of the discourse around disability has centred on the 3% quota under the Persons with Disabilities (PwD) Act, 1995. The Act currently covers five categories of disability: mental retardation, locomotor/orthopaedic disability, visual disability, speech & hearing disability and multiple disabilities. Activists have called not only for an expansion of these categories, but also the removal of bureaucratic obstacles in securing the rights protected by the legislation. There have also been calls to ensure accessible infrastructure in educational institutions. These are crucial issues, and St Stephen's College has made important gains in discharging its duties of accessibility on this front. Indeed, its alumni like George Abraham and Rijul Kochhar have been instrumental in securing the rights of PwD in the country.

But a highly bureaucratised discourse on disability has limited the range of conditions for which persons can avail support, as well as the kind of support that students can obtain. There is no regulation mandating assistance for students and employees who might require support ranging from access to a fridge for medication, to ground-floor accommodation due to chronic back pains. Current legislation also excludes various conditions such as asthma, dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, depression, eating disorders and psoriasis that threaten to adversely affect a person's education in the absence of efforts to address their special needs. As I read the principal's response, I begin to worry if an individual capable of mocking a person on the basis of their chronic condition could ever possess the sensitivity to address such needs. People with disabilities have long demanded that they be treated with empathy and respect rather than pity. The principal's reference to pity for a chronic health condition is a further reminder of the need for attitudinal change towards a wider range of disabilities.

While the exchange took place through emails, it is not exempt from norms governing civil discussion. Had such remarks been made in a discussion of a private nature, they would have still been repugnant. But that they are made in response to a former colleague criticising a decision adopted by the head of a public institution makes them even further unacceptable. A fundamental requirement for accessibility in educational institutions is the guarantee of a space where persons can engage in dialogue without inviting insults on the basis of their health conditions. In this case, an individual responsible for enforcing this requirement failed to uphold it himself.

Editor's note: Thampu did not respond to a request for comment about the communication discussed in this blog.

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