Indian Media’s Un-ending Obsession with Ableist Terminologies
It is no hidden fact that persons with disabilities have been a subject of ridicule in the mainstream media, and have often been subjected to derogatory terminologies. The debate has usually been about use of the correct terminology amongst a group of terms that are often use interchangeably like’ disabled’, ‘differently abled’, ‘specially abled’ or ‘physically challenged’. The Indian media however seems to be creating a new discourse altogether, with their overt frenzy of innovating offensive terminologies.
The Times of India carried a news brief on May 2, 2020 with the title “Salman Khan Extends Financial Support to Vertically Challenged Artistes”, covering the Bollywood actor’s efforts to help the artistes working in the film industry. In the entire piece including the title as quoted above, the media house that calls itself one of the most prominent print and digital media platforms, uses the term ‘vertically challenged’ for the members of All India Special Artistes Association (AISAA). This association is a wing of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), and consists of disabled artistes working for the entertainment industry. Despite the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 (RPwD) laying down legally acceptable terminologies like ‘persons with disabilities’, such uninformed journalists keep using offensive and disrespectful terminologies for the disabled.
What is then ‘vertically challenged’, if I may ask? The plain (dictionary) meaning of the term is “not tall, or short”. With such a wide ambit, even the prime focus of the news brief- Actor Salman Khan, can be called ‘vertically challenged’ in the normal Bollywood standards. So, how about a title “A Vertically Challenged Actor Helps Other Vertically Challenged Artistes”? I bet they won’t dare insult a celebrity like that!
Back in 2019, the disability community erupted with anger over the use of ‘vertically challenged’ for Shah Rukh Khan’s character in the movie zero by film-reviewers of some prominent platforms like First Post, The Week and Hindustan Times, amongst others. With today’s piece on the Times of India, it seems if the mainstream media has not moved on from the disrespectful term yet.
Apart from the Times of India, other media houses that carried the Salman Khan story did not use the term ‘vertically challenged’, although continuing the use of other, rather prevalent ableist terms. For instance, Hindustan Times used the term ‘specially abled’ to describe the artistes.
With prominent, mainstream media platforms showing such lack of empathy, it becomes extremely challenging to sensitize the wider public about ableist terms and their negative impact. Amidst the pandemic, social media platforms like TikTok have become a breeding ground for abusive content. Just recently, several disability rights activists objected to the circulation of videos openly mocking persons with disabilities and their challenges. It is thus a high time that mainstream media houses adopt a more matured, responsible journalistic standards to stop the spread of ridicule for the disabled.
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