India’s policies towards ensuring the rights of People Living with Disabilities has long been challenged in country by civil society groups and activists, despite it being one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. Under the leadership of the country current’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, the Accessibility India Campaign launched on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in December 2015 promised to comprehensively address challenges of stigma and discrimination by addressing amongst others, universal access to ensure ‘equal opportunity to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life in an inclusive society’.
India has more then 70 million people living with disabilities, with a reported 2% that are educated and 1% of that group employed. Despite top-level commitments, the country’s political leadership continues to drag its feet in Parliament in replacing the obsolete Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995. When the proposed ‘Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2014’ was discussed in Parliament in January 2016, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi had responded to reporters raising objections to the lack of clarity in the bill’s proposed criterion for determining mentally disabled persons, adding that “a person (who) is mentally ill like schizophrenic, how (could) he be given a job”. In response, the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled joined several disability activists in an open letter to Ms. Gandhi, as part of a powerful campaign called #wecanwork that called out such irresponsible statements, placing emphasis on assumptions made, the lack of interest in and understanding of challenges faced with people who have different kinds of disabilities. Whilst officials re-count such statements saying they were misunderstood, they reflect a clear lack of understanding, knowledge and sensitivity. Despite a Supreme Court judgment that has called commercial airlines to account for discriminating against passengers based on their disability and several repeated public calls to clarify how budgetary allocations are being made to address systemic discrimination, commitment reflected by top government officials has remained both ineffective and weak-willed, seen by many as a PR response instead to appease and appear progressive.
The Prime Minister has somewhat compounded this confusion, by making a request last year to replace the Hindi word ‘viklang’ with the word ‘divyang’ and continues to emphasize the same in national level policy speeches and official celebrations. The difference between both words should not just be seen as semantic. The word ‘viklang’ in Hindi largely translates to disabled in the context of being crippled or maimed – a term that has itself been seen as problematic in its lack of recognition of the social barriers and structures that prevent people with disabilities from fully enjoying and exercising their rights. ‘Divyang’ takes this confusion one step further, by attaching the idea of divinity or ‘god-given’ to physical disability. The outrage from disability movements and civil society groups has been not just on the government’s misplaced attempt to create inclusion by changing terminology but in its rejection of making real commitments to address discrimination and its misrepresentation of the disability community. The government’s approach in this regard has remained limited thus far, in examples such as official celebrations of the BJP completing 2 years in office, highlighting their achievements in the media and sharing that the events in question are being made accessible to people with hearing disabilities. The Central Government has further suggested that the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities update its title to similarly reflect the use of the term ‘viklangjan‘ as ‘divyangjan‘. A letter to the Prime Minister protesting this decision states, “Disability is not a divine gift. And the use of phrases like ‘divyang’ in no way ensure de-stigmatisation or an end to discrimination on grounds of disability… What needs to be addressed are stigma, discrimination and marginalisation that persons with disabilities are subjected to on account of the cultural, social, physical and attitudinal barriers that hinder their effective participation in the country’s economic, social and political life. Mere change of terminology is not in any way going to alter this.”
The argument over nomenclature highlights the need for the government to give real attention and commitment to addressing the gaps in its Accessibility India campaign, including its current promise to table the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2014 in the monsoon session of parliament. The proposed bill will make accessibility a mandatory requirement under the law. A current proposal by the government to potentially expand the number of categories of physical disabilities is currently being considered as part of the revised bill, hoped to enable more people to avail facilities under government schemes. Whilst the name ‘person with disability’ will not change in English, the effort and resources invested in updating terminology in Hindi has put spotlight on and raised questions about the government’s vision to affect change in this context and is somewhat disappointing in its limited approach. There are far more meaningful and critical ways to ensure inclusivity and accessible in our environment. They cannot be based on the assumption that by simply changing what you call a community of people and co-relating them to divinity, you address the stigma and discriminatory barriers they have faced and continue to navigate on a regular basis in their daily lives.