The Disabled Identity: Different, not Deviant
Being someone with a slight walking problem, I’ve often been asked-even by family at times- about how I ‘deal’ with my condition. I answer, quite simply that there is nothing for me to ‘deal’ with other than the normal perplexities of college life: schedules that tell me I should be studying when I am actually wrapped up in a warm blanket, taste buds being preoccupied with the blandness in everything I eat, and readings which end only because they refer to other texts. Some don’t even stop there: ‘Beta, even so, how do you manage alone? You must need help in....’, and the person goes on to mention a range of activities that s/he thinks I indulge in. It amazes me how much people think my holding a walker can reveal to them about my existence.
The prevalence of such stereotypical ideas about disability, and therefore, the disabled is closely linked to conventionalizing the ‘normal’; the general perception of such issues and individuals affected by them-and I say this with deep regret is whatever isn’t. As their challenges are are not those that one would normally face, they themselves are thought of as being abnormal, and therefore inferior. Such ideas often become justifying grounds for narrow minded discrimination. For instance, while many would be outraged if their children were prevented from going out just because they had a minor injury, few would question a physically challenged child being in a similar position. (after all, how many public places in India can we say confidently are disabled friendly?) In other words, a cloud of inferiority overshadows the differently abled- one that fails to acknowledge anything beyond their biological abnormalities. It is this narrow minded approach, and indeed, its consequences, that I will examine in this essay.
To begin with, the very notion of the disabled being ‘second-rate’ is rooted in their condition. Prejudicial treatment as a result of disability is aimed at a (completely unjustified) linkage of the biological aberrations which such individuals possess with them being inferior. And while that’s fairly obvious, what makes discrimination in the context of disability distinct is that it encompasses in it all other forms of bias as well. Thus, the wheel chair bound boy might face as much discrimination for his religion as his inability to participate in physical activity; bigotry towards the dyslexic girl might target both her gender and condition. Such differential treatment is especially perplexing for the disabled, for they wonder: If the entire reason that their ailments are looked down upon is because they make them less than normal, why then is their ordinary behavior-such as adopting a religion or voicing an opinion- scrutinized like that of so-called normal members of society?
The stigmatized identity of the disabled, moreover, also causes them continual self-doubt. According to a 2012 article published The Disability Studies Quarterly, societal pressure forces such individuals to view themselves in stereotypical definitions. As a result, they begin thinking of their special needs as deviant rather than different; any resistance to this belief only furthers their guilt and confusion. This considerably lowers the self esteem and confidence of the differently abled, and makes them vulnerable to social exclusion; this disregard, intentional or not, forces them to stay home even if there are ‘disabled friendly’ facilities in their vicinity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the disabled often have to overcome the challenge of imposition. Identity for them is not a choice, but a given; their societal labels give them little room to express their desires, talents and problems. Hence, the disabled are encouraged to have minimal interests in concepts (that instructors or guardians deem) 'too complex' for them and hush up their concerns about everyday discrimination. A study conducted by the Australian ‘Betterhealth Channel even found that many disabled adults had chronic anxiety due to their inability to engage in romantic relationships- again, a taboo in society.
As the world continues to grapple with the idea of accepting the disabled as equal members of society, let this essay serve as an earnest appeal; not merely the passionate rambling of an individual concerned with disability rights, but a desperate call-to-action. We must realize that putting the rights and dignity of legal citizens of India below the whims of a few is a shallow compromise; the nation can only progress with their wholehearted integration.
By Tanmay Singh