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  • Writer's pictureSruti Mohapatra

Who is Disabled?

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

30 years back I met with a road accident. One drunk driver’s callous driving turned many lives upside down for life. A baby lost her mother, a young girl lost her ability to walk and; one elderly woman lost her zest for life, ending up losing her memory completely.

Three individuals affected. Three families shattered. And the driver will never know!

That was 1987. I am that young girl. I cannot walk; need a wheelchair to for mobility and an attendant to assist me with my daily living. In these 30 years I have seen the definition and perspective of disability changing. But the question that still remains to be fully answered is ‘who is disabled?’ 

Let us come to me. Am I disabled?

The answer to this question is, I had never felt disabled until I reached Bhubaneswar from the rehabilitation centre in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Society painstakingly made me aware that I was disabled, different, not wanted, a second-class citizen. I equally strongly resisted it, having grown up in a family where we were all treated as equals, irrespective of the existing boy preference. Till my return to my city, I was a wheel-chair bound person, quadriplegic, who was living as near normal a life, with a slower pace and a different way of doing things. At home I was still the eldest daughter and my opinion was valued. In other words I did, what I could, what I loved, with a different body form but nothing abnormal.

As people started visiting me, my body which was accepted at home as one with different needs suddenly became deformed, pitiable, an experience which shattered my new found confidence and pushed me into a cocoon of isolation for months. Society (my marriage broke down) and government’s attitude (in not allowing me to join my job) hammered into me the label that I am “useless, a burden.” Even now, when I am not just an activist for the cause, but an established name in my state, people pat my head, have tears brimming in their eyes or they are awkward in the use of terms like walking in my presence.

I understand their intent. But they do not understand their actions are insensitive.

I strongly feel society should not be categorised into what is normal and abnormal or different - after all, who and what determine the parameters? For example, at what stage, should having difficulty in walking or reading a book qualify an individual for disabled status?

Many people are affected by illnesses or accidents that cause temporary impairment at some stage in their lives. Therefore the ability to carry out activities in a variety of different ways should be recognised as being a regular part of everyday living. The fact that an individual has a disability should not be seen as implying a lack of ability or intellect. It is the environment that imposes the constraints that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in day to day activities and living their lives fully. And this environment is the outcome of discriminatory attitudes and ignorance which prevents us being offered the opportunities given to our non-disabled counterparts.

So what is disability? 

Well, it’s complicated.

Disability is an individualised experience; the same impairment can have entirely different outcomes for two people living in different places.  In this sense, every time I land in Logan airport in Boston and spend few weeks with my sisters, I have no memories of feeling being disabled – from the car parking, to restaurants, museums, her house, auditoriums, cinema halls, gardens, riversides, schools, temples – all have accommodations for the wheel chair, every thing my family does on their legs, I do on my wheel chair. In India we have a lot in paper, in laws, but solutions rarely get translated into reality. Huge money is spent for accessibility but are we concerned if the ramp is usable, efforts are being done for school enrolment but are we concerned about how the deaf child will interact with teacher or autistic child will learn subjects! 

The principle of diversity provides the foundation to accept disability as part of human variation. However, it is a sad reality that in practice our treatment of difference has been rather poor, especially in the context of disability. Legislation and social policies abound. Law can get me job, but only society’s positive attitude can help me get colleague and senior’s support, an accessible workplace and information in accessible format.

So who is disabled?

One who is limited in physical and mental faculties or one who is limited in vision and thinking and thus does not provide a level playing field to those who are challenged?


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