Disability, Language, and Empowerment: Dorodi Sharma

This is a guest post by DORODI SHARMA

In 2009, as a writer for a disability news portal I got a note back with one of my stories from the director of the organisation. “Suffering from disability”, I had written about someone. The note said “I have been a wheelchair user since the age of 15, and trust me I am not suffering.” Over the years, the first document I shared with new employees of the disability rights organisation I worked for in Delhi was a document on ‘disability etiquette’ that outlined not just terminologies but also the acceptable ways of interacting with people with disabilities. Yes, even in the 21st century we need to coach people on ‘interacting’ with a section of humanity. The discourse on importance of language has taken a new meaning when recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi called people with disabilities ‘divyang’ or people with divine abilities. The reaction to this has been outrage, to shaking of heads, to complete indifference. But it is important to talk about language when it comes to disability because it reeks of charity and reflects the patronizing attitude that prevents people with disabilities in India from getting their due.

Let us be very clear, disability is part of human diversity. Disability is as normal or abnormal as being a man, woman, gay, lesbian, person of colour, or any other variation of being human for that matter. Why then do we look at disability as something that needs to be ‘overcome’? With the proliferation of social media, we are now faced with innumerable ‘inspiration porn’ posts. Yes, inspiration porn. As described by Stella Young, Australian journalist, comedian, and activist – inspiration porn is objectifying people with disabilities for the benefit of non-disabled people. Young said the purpose of these images is to inspire people, to motivate them, so that they can look at them and think “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.” Precisely for that reason, people living with a disability are tired (and angry) of all the euphemistic terminologies used about them. No, they are not specially-abled, or differently abled, or ‘divyang’ for that matter. They are persons with disabilities and disability is a crucial part of their identity, just like one’s gender, race, or nationality.

The understanding of disability has evolved over time and continues to do so. Historically, disability was looked at as a charity or a medical issue. As social and political organization of people with disabilities started in the 60s and 70s, the idea of disability rights began to gain ground. By 1981, the fact that disability is a social and human rights issue – the year designated by the United Nations as International Year of Disabled Persons.

The next milestone in the understanding of disability was in 2006 with the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This Convention is the fastest negotiated human rights treaty in the history of the UN. So far, 161 countries have ratified CRPD. India ratified CRPD in October 2007 and was the seventh country in the world to do so. CRPD has changed the paradigm in which we look at disability. It is no longer a ‘problem’ with the individual, but is a result of the interaction of individual impairments with barriers in the environment – be it physical, informational, or attitudinal. For instance, if the access to a building only has steps and no ramps, that would lead to a disability for a person with limited mobility – not the fact that he/she has a physical impairment. As Young had famously said in her TED talk about a meme with the caption ‘The only disability is a bad attitude’: “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”

According to Census 2011, India is home to 26.8 million people with disabilities. Conservative estimates however put it close to 70-100 million. In fact, the 11th Five Year Plan acknowledges that disability is grossly underestimated in the country. The World Health Organisation says hat 15 percent of a country’s population is affected by disability. An analysis of government spending from 2008-12 done by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) showed that India spent an abysmal 0.0009 percent of its GDP on disability issues. Another annual survey conducted by NCPEDP showed that in 2014, only 0.56 percent students with disabilities were in higher educational institutes despite the 3 percent reservation. Given this poor access to education, it is not surprising that less than 1 percent of people with disabilities in the country are meaningfully employed. What people with disabilities need is equal access to opportunities that enable them to be educated, employed, and live a full and complete life as any other citizen in the country. What they do not need is any more of clever nomenclature that puts them in a ‘special’ box reinforcing stereotypes of pity.

Dorodi Sharma holds a master in public policy from University of Maryland College Park. A disability rights advocate, she is Advisor to Chairperson, Disabled People’s International and was previously Programme Manager at National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, India.

2 thoughts on “Disability, Language, and Empowerment: Dorodi Sharma”

  1. ‘Dis-ability’ is the outcome of the socio-economic problems of individuals whose body as well as mind needs to adapt to specific situations. A visually disabled needs social acceptance as well as economic assistance for meaningful employment. Similarly, a mentally disabled needs social understanding as well as economic help to get psychiatric treatment. Unfortunately, the uni-dimensional approach of government and the society is becoming hindrance to maximum productivity of disabled. The rural and the lower-caste diffeently abled persons are the most effected by social boycott conditions and paucity of economic assistance. By mere change of words no significant change is possible. Total empoverment alongwith the caste,gender, race, poverty should be the way for emancipation and independent living.


  2. I agree it’s good to get our attitudes right, and that will reflect in our language. Problem is, language is limited, and take on different meanings over time. Try as we may, we never quite get the right words to use, in this context. Each phrase starts off with acceptance, but after a few years, is shunned as a derogatory word.


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