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Is India hostile towards disabled?


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

There is a piquant story about the late Indian Communist leader EMS Namboodiripad, one of many famous people (Tiger Woods, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley among them) who was prone to stuttering. A reporter once asked EMS if he always stammered (stutter and stammer are the same). "No, only when I speak, " EMS is said to have joked, presumably inducing a momentary stammer in the witless reporter.

India remains a cruel society to people with disabilities. As it is, we are one of the most discriminatory societies on earth, victimising people on a range of biases from religion and caste to color and wealth etc, but the plight of a person with a disability is rough in a hungry society. An aggressive, combative, predatory population on the make has no eyes or ears for the slightest incapacity. Oh sure, there is the occasional pang of individual pity and concern, but as a collective, we have little mindspace for them. It shows in our films, on our roads, in our buildings, and in our books.

Which is why a film like Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par, which addresses a minor disability like dyslexia, was a very small step in redressing the unsparing cruelty Indian society and film industry has inflicted on the impaired and disabled. From caricaturing cripples and hunchbacks to parodying the stuttering and the deaf, there isn't one disability Bollywood's brain-dead scriptwriters haven't made fun of. Maybe TZP will induce a new sensitivity, but don't count on it. It is after all a reflection of the society we live in.

Another common disability is getting plenty of attention these days thanks to the movie The King's Speech, which centers around an English monarch's struggle to overcome a stammer. Colin Firth's performance as King George VI has made him top contender for an Oscar for best actor, but even if he doesn't nail it, the movie has touched on a fairly common impairment. Even in a country that has made giant leaps in addressing disabilities, the film has been embraced by the Stuttering Foundation of America as "rare opportunity to teach the widest possible audience about the complexities of stuttering, and the availability of treatment and support. "

As with most disabilities, stuttering is also much misunderstood and maligned. Some 68 million people worldwide - one per cent of the world population - is prone to stuttering. Demosthenes, the father of rhetoric, and Moses, the patriarch prophet, are among the earliest known stutterers. Down the ages, brilliant minds (Darwin, Newton, Churchill, etc) and beautiful people (Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman Hugh Grant etc) overcame what is at best a minor growing-up wrinkle that can be easily fixed, rather than treated as a handicap.

In fact, the term handicapped itself is in disfavour these days. It comes from Elizabethian Age, when people with disabilities were ejected from hospitals and shelters for the poor and forced to beg and given a cap in which to collect alms (hence handicap ). Today, the US is among the few countries that is a leader in easing the life of the disabled, an American example worth emulating instead of the many tawdry practices we follow blindly.

It wasn't any different from India even up until 50 years ago. Like with much of the western world, treatment of disabled ranged from seeing them as sinners possessed by evil (from ancient times to the 1800) to regarding them as genetically defective or inferior (1800s to 1970s). As late as 1824, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a state law that allowed for sterilization (without consent) of individuals found to be "feeble-minded, insane, depressed, mentally handicapped, epileptic and other. "

The decision removed all restraints for eugenicists, and probably muted American criticism of Nazi excesses, although by this time Roosevelt had become the first person with a serious physical disability to be elected U. S President. Although Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, establishing federal old-age benefits and grants to the states for assistance to blind individuals and disabled children, he himself continued his "splendid deception" of concealing his disability from the American public.

It was only in the 1960s that Washington moved to seriously address the disability issue. The American National Standard Institute (ANSI) published American Standard Specifications for Making Buildings Accessible to, and Usable by, the Physically Handicapped. The landmark document became the basis for subsequent codes. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 required public transport vehicles to be accessible to elderly and handicapped persons.

By the 1990s, there was such broad acceptance of the disabled as a part of the national fabric that Bob Dole's paralyzed hand was never an issue in his presidential bid in 1996. A society that celebrated the English physicist Stephen Hawking (motor neuron disease) didn't hesitate to elect Max Cleland (lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam) to the Senate. Stammering, in comparison, is a mere hiccup - a disability that has not stopped Vice-president Joe Biden, who overcame it as a child, from becoming America's bloviator-in-chief.

Of course, not everyone who overcomes a disability is going to become a Hawking, much less a Milton (blind) or Beethoven (deaf). But 21st century knowledge and sensitivity can at least provide a level playing field. India, with more than 60 million disabled, must not stutter in its response.

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