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Social inequality and the disabled

The differently abled are not disabled only because they are physically or mentally impaired but also because society is built in a manner that does not cater to their needs.

In contrast to the struggles over Dalit, adivasi or women's rights the rights of the disabled have been recognized only very recently. Yet in all historical periods, in all societies there have been people who are disabled.

In India labels such as disability, handicap, crippled, blind and deaf are used synonymously. Often these terms are hurled at people as insults. In culture that looks up to bodily perfection all deviations from the perfect body signify abnormality, defect and distortion. Labels such as bechara accentuate the victim status for the disabled person. The roots of such attitudes lie in the cultural conception that views an impaired body as a result of fate. Destiny is seen as the culprit and disabled people are the victims. The common perception views disability as retribution for past karma from which there can be no reprieve. The dominant cultural construction in India therefore looks at disability as essentially a characteristic of the individual. The popular images in mythology portray the disabled in an extremely negative fashion.

The term disabled challenges each of these assumptions. Terms such as mentally challenged, visually impaired and physically impaired came to replace the more negative terms such as retarded, crippled or lame. The disabled are rendered disabled not because they are biologically disabled but because society renders them so. The social construction of disability has yet another dimension. There is a close relationship between disability and poverty.Malnutrition, mothers weakened by frequent childbirth, inadequate immunization programmes, and accidents in overcrowded homes all contribute to an incidence of disability among poor people that is higher than among people living in easier circumstances. Furthermore disability creates and exacerbates poverty by increasing isolation and economic strain not just for the individual but for the family there is little doubt that disabled people are among the poorest in poor countries. It is only recently with the efforts of the disabled themselves that some awareness is building in society on the need to rethink disability. Recognition of disability is absent from the wider educational discourse. This is evident from the historical practices within the educational system that continue to marginalize the issue of disability by maintaining two separate streams- one for disabled students and one for everyone else.