Get-hooked May 18, 2020
Disabled people need to get political! – Guest Column by Tony Kurian
Our guest columnist for the week is Tony Kurian who is a visually impaired Ph.D student at the Department of Humanities and Social Science at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay. He is also involved with disability rights.
For the old slogan “nothing about us without us” to be fulfilled entirely, there is a need to include persons with disability in active politics, because only politics can ensure a full restoration of dignity.
Imagine a huge political rally. Supporters are waiting for the leader to arrive on stage and deliver his speech. There is huge anticipation in the air and thousands are waiting to get a glimpse of their leader. Finally, the leader arrives on stage, slowly moving through the crowd on a wheelchair. This is a rare sight in our society and we are not used to seeing persons with disability as our politicians.
If persons with disability ought to be viewed by society as individuals with dignity, it is important to have political leaders with disability. Before diving deep, some clarifications are in order. While there are many persons with disability who are engaged in disability rights advocacy and activism, for the purpose of this essay we do not treat these areas as politics. Although these are professions which are deeply political, we restrict our focus to individuals for whom politics is their only vocation. In other words, we are concerned with individuals who hold offices as elected representatives or are involved in running party machinery.
While politicians with disability are involved in disability rights activism, their area of work goes far beyond this. It is important for us to understand why such personalities are important for the community of persons with disability.
Persons with disabilities are usually perceived in two contrasting manners: they are either perceived as subjects deserving sympathy or as super humans who are the sources of inspiration for the non-disabled world.
Suffice to say that neither of these representations view persons with disability as humans. In the former representation, disability is viewed as lack of an ability, something that denigrates persons with disability only as worthy of benevolence. In the latter representation, disability is associated with something divine resulting in extraordinary abilities. Through engaging in political activities, persons with disability counter these caricatures.
For persons with disability, politics presents the opportunity to set the terms of discussion about disability and political action can be used to highlight the humanness of being disabled. Persons with disability through engaging in the act of competing for and exercising power can invert the conventional understanding of the relationship between disabled and non-disabled world.
By attaining power, persons with disability can contribute to the decision-making process which impacts the lives of the entire society. This is a marked shift from the present status in which disabled life is no more than an instrument on which non-disabled decision makers can perform experiments which essentially emanate from a concocted imagination about disability. With power, persons with disability attain a seat at the table where rules governing their lives are made.
Practicing politics with disability
There are a few examples of politicians with disability. Here, we are only concerned about those politicians who viewed disability as an identity rather than a lack of ability. This is warranted as there have been politicians who had some or other form of disability, yet brushed their disability under the carpet while practicing politics. The individuals concerned here wove disability into their political life and brought issues of the disabled to the forefront.
Inspirational darling of the non-disabled world, Hellen Keller was a member of the American socialist party and stood for workers solidarity. In the non-disabled narrative, she is caged as a symbol of perseverance and triumphalism and this should be understood as an attempt to create an apolitical icon of inspiration. Her politics dovetailed her understanding of society with that of disability.
Disabled politicians make an impact
The current president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, is a wheelchair user and is credited with having a long-term impact on the polity and society. He is also the UN special envoy on disability and accessibility. David Blunkett, former Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, is visually challenged and is credited for taking measures to improve literacy and standards of higher education. He was also associated with the Royal National Institute of Blind. Closer home, we have Sadhan Gupta who became the first blind parliamentarian in India. He was very active in electoral politics and contested elections against some of the well-known leaders of his time such as Syama Prasad Mukherjee and former chief minister of West Bengal Siddartha Shankar Ray. He served as advocate general of West Bengal under the Left Front government. He was the founding president of the National Federation of the Blind.
What is common among all the politicians with disability is that they used their vocation of politics both for intervening in socio-political affairs and also for the emancipation of persons with disability. They were able to integrate disability rights in their practice of politics and viewed disability as a socio-political problem which could be addressed through means of politics.
The inclusion of persons with disability in the electoral politics is an essential aspect of deepening democracy. While all mainstream political parties boast of having a wing dedicated to disability, the real question is how many of their members are persons with disability. The inaccessibility of electoral and democratic infrastructure, absence of political information in accessible formats are important questions which cannot be addressed in a short space. Politics offers a great opportunity for persons with disability to assert their dignity and champion a just system.
Next time, when the government pejoratively calls us “Divyang” or a politician mocks us to make a political point, we should be able to offer a formidable challenge. For the challenge to become real, we need to stake claim to the same power which subjugates us. We cannot let the next policy discussion on disability in parliament and legislative assembly take place in the absence of members with disability. Nothing about us without us should be our mantra even while dealing with the highest echelons of power politics.