In his Mann Ki Baat broadcast on 27th December 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the public to adopt the word divyang (divine body) while referring to people with disabilities instead of viklang (disabled). The suggestion did not go well with the disability community and/or people working on disability.
Sociologist Kalpana Kannabiran in her article juxtaposed this suggestion with the treatment of Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba by the State. Saibaba suffers from 90 percent disability and had been arrested for his involvement in a ‘serious crime’, but was rejected bail even on medical grounds. Kannabiran said, “Trapped between the divine and the diabolical, it is time, yet again, for us to understand afresh that the disproportionate disadvantage, exclusion, and stigmatisation suffered by persons with disabilities are a result of discrimination against them, and are caused by cultural, social, and physical barriers that obstruct their effective participation in social and political life. Disability is not a divine gift — this assertion is a grave misreading of the place of rights in realising human dignity, and the role of the state in ensuring protection against discrimination.”
Research scholar Avinash Shahi also wrote in agreement. “Merely a change in nomenclature for addressing disabled people is no substitute for empowering disabled persons.” Shahi rightly said that the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities should involve people with disabilities in the process and suggestion.
When the suggestion was made in January this year, it was met by heavy criticism by disabled people and disability rights activists and for the sometime both the Prime Minister and the Ministry were silent on the same. It seemed as though, the topic was well-forgotten. However, come May, and we suddenly get to hear that the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities will now be known as Divyangjan Sashaktikaran Vibhag in Hindi, dropping the word viklangjan from its previous terminology. The Centre had proposed the change in name of the department by amending the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 and President Pranab Mukherjee has given his approval for the new term.
I interviewed six women with disabilities and/or women who work on disability and asked them if they would prefer being called divyang. Here’s what they have to say:
Nidhi Goyal, a gender and disability rights activist, outrightly rejects the term and says, “I am not Divyang and don’t prefer being called that. I think we have found another way through the PM’s address to tell the disabled that you are ‘not normal’. First you were less than those who were ‘normal’ which means you were ‘abnormal’ and now you are the super power so ‘super normal’. The main emphasis is that you are different not like us- the regular ‘normal’ population. Who is normal I say?”
She further busts the negative connotation around the word disabled. “The word disabled is a simple word of the English language and the problem is not with the word but with the negative and hateful and charitable connotation attached to it. For a patriarchal household a man is abused for his weakness by calling him a girl or sissie. But that doesn’t mean that the word ‘girl’ is an abuse, it’s just the ideas carved around it. Similarly I think the word ‘disability’ inspires assumptions, prejudices, stigma which are needed to be combated and I assure you they won’t just disappear if you now call us Divyang!”
Amba Salelkar, a disability rights activist working at the policy level to make laws inclusive for people with disabilities, is uncomfortable with the term. She says, “The head of State recognizing people with disabilities as Divyang is very uncomfortable, because really it conveys the image that people with disabilities have achieved things, despite all obstacles, because there is some divinity or special power within them that gives them this ability. Which takes the focus away from the removal of barriers, which is kind of the whole point of the social model of disability, and which is the State obligation to fulfill. The intention may be to remove attitudinal barriers, but it runs the risk of creating another one, which is prioritizing one kind of disabled person (the achiever) over another. It’s a step backward and is quite incompatible with what India should be doing under various International covenants.”
Gender and disability rights activist Shampa Sengupta agrees with the above two and says, “There’s nothing “divine” about us and we do not have any special power or quality. Prime Minster should have tried to understand the socio-political nuances of terms preferred by disability sector before saying this in his radio programme. It is the governement’s duty to ensure that rights of people with disabilities are not violated – instead of doing it, they are trying to change the nomenclature whereas grass-root realities of our lives remain same.”
Blogger and columnist Virali Modi doesn’t like labels. She says, “Whether it be Viklang or Divyang a label is a label. I am not a label, I am a human being with feelings, emotions, that cannot walk. Not being able to walk does not define me, my actions, my nature, and my empathy defines me. It does not matter to me what the name is, whether it be viklang, divyang, or yin yang, because this is not me. I am Virali Modi, and I’d prefer you call me that.”
Marketing consultant Suranjana Ghosh rejects both the terms and says, “In my mind, I am not viklang, or divyang. I am a person who had to undergo an amputation and lost a limb, in order to save my life from a cancerous condition. I am the same person I was, before this life altering incident occurred. I did not get diminished in spirit or ambition, so I am not ‘viklang’. I did not have special powers before, nor do I have them now, so I am not ‘divyang’, either. I am Suranjana, an above knee amputee and cancer survivor for the past 18 years. I am someone who hopes to have infrastructure that makes accessibility the norm and not the luxury, for people with disabilities in India. A mere change in nomenclature will not alter the harsh reality of roads with no pavements or smooth surfaces, that are risky to navigate for people with disabilities. Buildings and establishments need to account for elevators and ramps, that are truly friendly for people with mobility issues. Accessing public transport needs to be easy and intuitive, so that people can locomote without assistance. A nominal change is just that and it cannot singularly aid in improving deep rooted mindsets against disability. Viklang or Divyang, both the terms are isolating and don’t define me or the life that I, and thousands like me in this country, are working towards: A life of dignity, independence, equality and access to opportunity. So, you may call us what you will, but this is what the government should focus on, rather than retrofitted pity or token changes in name.”
Para-badminton player Manasi Joshi doesn’t care about terminology. She says, “I don’t want to sound diplomatic here but according to me nothing changes by just changing the way someone calls me. It’s like a family name a girl gets after marriage, you have no option but to take another family name. Instead of nomenclature change, more efforts must be taken by PM Narendra Modi to change current infrastructure policies and must work on making country disabled friendly.”
All the above statements point to one simple fact: change of term will not bring about a change or help people with disabilities in any way. What will be beneficial though is a more inclusive and accessible environment which the government at the Centre and the States should work on. The Accessible India campaign shouldn’t be just about words, but also action.
Also read: Dear Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, #WeCanWork And How
Disclaimer: An earlier version of the article appeared here.