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Ableism in fact and fiction - Guest column by Anchal Bhatheja

August 5, 2019

Our guest columnist this week is a second year law student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Anchal is also the founder of the NLS Diversible Alliance which seeks to promote the interests of people of disabilities on campus.

Prejudices against persons with disabilities are explicit in all walks of life. They are also evident in facts and fiction. Right from the Mahabharata epic which talks about Dhrithrashtra who could not be crowned king because of his blindness right up to the climax of the film Sholay, where Thakur amputates the arms of dacoit Gabbar Singh as he believes that disabled someone is worse than killing them.

Many such instances are unspoken forms of super-humanising or de-humanising people with disabilities. It can be said that the implicit discrimination against people with disabilities is more prevalent than explicit and is on the rise in recent times.

A recent report in the Journal of Social Issues claims that non-disabled people generally tend to have unspoken attitudes against persons with disabilities. These are feelings which are beyond the control of a person and reflect what is felt within. Stated biases on the other hand are controllable. Non-disabled people internalise the idea that disabled people are to be treated with pity, sympathy or regarded as an embodiment of inspiration and greatness.

The same study also says that implicit biases against disabled people grow with age and that older people tend to have more negative attitudes.

The research also reveals that growing interaction between disabled and non-disabled people reduced such biases. The discrimination against disabled people is often perpetrated by people who lack this experience. These biases then become a fundamental part of the dominant belief system. They take the form of attitudinal barriers that worsen the disability of disabled people. Does this research hold relevance in the Indian context? The answer is yes because the belief that disability is linked to the sins in the past birth has much relevance in India. Take the statement by Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam BJP minister, who said that many diseases like cancer and other accidents are the result of sins in past lives.

The lack of access to pubic places is also a result of such attitudinal barriers. Like Arunima Sinha, the first female amputee to climb Mount Everest was denied entry into a temple as she could follow a particular dress code due to her disability.

Such instances show that accessibility is not the only barrier faced by disabled people, the challenges increase exponentially due to attitudinal barriers they encounter on a daily basis.

According to the 2011 Census, India has a disabled population of 21 million. We cannot afford to ignore them. India definitely needs inclusive laws and efficient enforcement of those laws to disable the disability of this community and enable their abilities. The larger public also needs to become sensitised and shed these attitudinal barriers, so society becomes more inclusive and disabled-friendly.

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