At a recent conference on the rights of women with disabilities, extensive deliberation upon how it was important for persons with disabilities in general and women with disabilities in particular to lead an independent existence was discussed. A panelist beautifully laid the foundation of the discussion in the following terms: “No one is ever independent. So let us not talk about independent existence and instead talk about the autonomous existence of women with disabilities”.
Nomenclature is important and we all have come to realise that especially after the Prime Minister called us “divyang” (which translates to ‘divine body’ in English). Words integrate and words otherise. Thus, the distinction between independence and autonomy certainly becomes significant. But keeping words aside for a moment, it is important to unpack what autonomy means to persons with disabilities. Should they carry the burden of becoming autonomous or should someone else bear the responsibility of facilitating their autonomous existence?
After some introspection, I realised that asking the disabled to be autonomous is ableist, unless the institutions facilitate the unleashing of that autonomy. All through my school and college life, in my personal and professional spheres, I have always been asked to push my limits. When the institutions do not provide for reasonable accommodation and instead ask the disabled to unreasonably adjust, it does not make the disabled autonomous. Rather, it just makes the said institution ableist.
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For instance, when a professor fails to explain graphs to a blind student and ask the student instead to work harder and push their limits, that is an unfair burden to put on the disabled. To ask a person using a wheelchair to try harder and walk, to ask a deaf person to try harder and hear, to ask a neuro-divergent person to try harder and not express when they feel uncomfortable is all an unfair burden to put on the disabled. Autonomy cannot and should not mean compromising with the inflexible aspects of one’s disability.
The notions of disabled people being strong and extra-ordinary have gained a lot of momentum due to inspiration porn that the disabled people have always been subjected to. However, it is important to acknowledge that the disabled people are ordinary too.
At my school, I was often told that I was given admission in a sighted school despite my blindness because I was “extra-ordinary”. But why is it necessary for the disabled to be extra-ordinary? Why can’t they just be ordinary? Why do they always need to be beacons of inspiration?
I finally found the answer to these questions when I read upon the legal scholarship on reasonable accommodation wherein a lot of times, the institutions take the defense of undue hardship. Under this, the institutions state that they cannot provide for reasonable accommodation for disabled individuals or provide them with what they require, as this imposes undue burden on them. They justify how due to various capacity constraints, they cannot accommodate for the needs of the disabled individuals.
It is then that I realised that able-bodied people and ableist institutions ask the disabled individuals to be inspiring, extra-ordinary and autonomous as they do not want to bear the burden of being inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. So, to avoid providing reasonable accommodation, they would push the ideal of a “extraordinary” disabled person who will just about make do and not make reasonable demands that suit their needs.
It is easier to patronise a blind person to push their limits and understand graphs without being able to see them than evolving techniques to make those graphs accessible. It is easier to patronize a person using a wheelchair into believing that they can push their limits and walk, than constructing ramps and actually making buildings accessible for them. It is easier to patronize a neuro-divergent person to push their limits and “behave appropriately” instead of making the environment conducive for their inclusion and integration.
Disabled individuals are autonomous in many spheres and are dependent in few others. For example, a blind person can walk but cannot see. A person with locomotive disability can see but cannot walk. A deaf person can see and walk but cannot hear. Asking a blind person to see, asking a deaf person to hear and asking a person with locomotive disability to walk in the name of autonomy is against the laws of nature as much as it is against the disability laws of the land. It is important for both the disabled and the able-bodied population to acknowledge that different disabilities do bring some limitations along with them. Discrediting those limitations under the garb of inspiration porn is not fair.
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Let the disabled people be autonomous to the extent their disability allows them to be and to the extent reasonable accommodation from outside environment facilitates their existence. Expecting even an iota of more autonomy from them is an undue burden on them.
Rather, it is time that institutions learn to push their limits instead of forcing the disabled individuals to push their limits.
For this to happen, ramps need to be constructed in the brains of the people heading these institutions. Just erecting steep slippery ramps in a few spaces would not help address the structural problem of social behavioural patterns and attitudes. Disabled individuals are just ordinary people with no divine powers who need reasonable accommodation and not patronisation that they are inspiring, extra-ordinary and autonomous, for them to be able to participate equally and meaningfully in the society.
Anchal is a 4th year student at NLSIU. You can find her on Twitter.
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