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HomeOpinionPolitical back-and-forth on Sanatan Dharma reveals structural bias against Persons with Disability

Political back-and-forth on Sanatan Dharma reveals structural bias against Persons with Disability

Written by Shashank Pandey

A Raja, a DMK leader and a Member of Parliament, recently stirred a political controversy when he compared Sanatan Dharma to leprosy and HIV. This was part of a back-and-forth in the current political dialogue around the issue of disrespecting the Sanatan Dharma. However, his statement underlines a long-standing stigma around Persons with Disabilities (PwD) and illness. The abhorrent attitude towards PwD is not new is structural across domains.

Presently, India accounts for the highest number of new cases of leprosy worldwide, estimated to be about 54 per cent (75,394 in 2021-22). Leprosy is also recognised as one of the 21 disabilities under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPwD Act). Similarly, 2.4 million Indians are living with HIV/AIDS. The inaccessibility to information and health services for HIV further makes PwD vulnerable to this. These comments underline the long-standing attitudinal barrier of society against any disability.

“Attitudinal barrier” is understood as pervasive, negative perceptions and value systems that focus on what makes a person different from another rather than on the person’s inherent dignity.

The RPwD Act envisages a catena of barriers that renders individuals disabled in their environment. At the policy intervention stage, there is an overemphasis on the infrastructure, environmental, or structural barriers as they are the most visible aspects of social interaction. However, the attitudinal barrier is often overlooked. It doesn’t provoke as strong of a resistance as the previously mentioned. For instance, limitations in hiring disabled persons in a certain domain (like Indian Police Services or executive roles in companies) are based on the preconceived notion of their inability to perform necessary duties without any objective assessment.

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These attitudinal barriers have been institutionalised across domains, leading to the perpetuation of stereotypes. The stereotypes have been materialised in the form of discriminatory activities and compromising the dignity of disabled persons. MP Raja’s statement perpetuates the duality of such stereotypes. First, leprosy and people with HIV are not equal to able-bodied people (discrimination), and second, they live a life devoid of dignity as leprosy, and HIV is presumed to be their identity.

The disability movement has been fighting a long battle to shed this medical model of disability, which focuses on the limitation of the medical condition, to a human rights-based model that recognises that disability is a part of human diversity and not identity. These stereotypes that transcend into the attitudinal barrier often operate on opposite ends of the scale, that is, depicting them as heroic or vulnerable. Either way, it undermines the equality requested by disabled persons.

The RPwD Act attempts to tackle the attitudinal barrier by providing equality and anti-discrimination mandate (Section 4), a more sensitised approach to providing inclusive education (Section 17), countering barriers in employment (Section 20) or putting forward the chronicles of historical experiences of PwDs (Section 29). However, its mandate of “barrier-free” is often looked at from a tangible perspective, that is, infrastructure or environment.

Recently, The Supreme Court launched the handbook to counter gender stereotypes. The intention was to eradicate any usage of words or phrases that would perpetuate the idea of inferiority of women or diminish the dignity of women. Thus, the essentiality of correct phraseology is essential to reduce discrimination against vulnerable populations.

Courts have been proactive in recognising the aspect of the attitudinal barrier within the disability legislation. For instance, the Supreme Court in the Jeeja Ghose case remarked that an attitudinal barrier is often more limiting than a paralysed limb of an individual. Recently, the Delhi High Court in Akshat Baldwa vs. Yash Raj Films, observed that attitudinal social and cultural barriers are the worst form of discrimination that the disabled feel as their grievance is that others do not understand them. Thus, a similar initiative from the judiciary would provide a starting point for building a comprehensive literature on this aspect. For instance, the California Judiciary has released a “Disability Terminology Chart” compiling appropriate and inappropriate words/phrases.

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The use of such terminology by the upper echelons of politics is a common occurrence. There are numerous instances of such demeaning disabled people by designating them inferior or comparing them to an inferior entity. Such words are rampant in political speeches before and during the election cycle, where opposing entities use such phraseology. The Election Commission of India has failed to curb such speeches. The Model Code of Conduct doesn’t address disability-offensive terminologies.

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Incidentally, such demeaning phraseology is also used in the Parliament. The compilation of unparliamentary expressions hardly contains disability stereotype phrases like a cripple, mentally ill, deformed, psycho, retarded etc. Thus, there has been little attempt from the highest legislative body to stop the percolation of insensitive terminologies against PwDs through its members into constituencies and states.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in its Preamble gives preference to attitudinal barriers when it mentions that disability is an evolving attitude. It is imperative that we also evolve our nomenclature when talking with or about Persons with Disabilities. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

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Shashank Pandey is a Lawyer and a person with visual disability

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