People with Disabilities: Perception, Policies and Possibilities

THERE are two perspectives, two paradigms and two incidents to reckon with and to take account of before venturing into the heart of this article. The books of Hadith and Seerah report thus that once while the Prophet (PBUH) was delivering a sermon to his assembly of companions, he was hinted at by a woman who was well known to be suffering from mental ailments. The Prophet (PBUH) left his pulpit and went down to the old woman who kept commuting to the Prophet (PBUH) and kept telling him I want to tell you something there, and then there and then there, till they covered a good distance and the women left bursting in laughter. On seeing the entire scene, Hazrat Umar (RA), went to Prophet (PBUH) and said “Our master did we not tell you not to pay any heed to this mad woman”, to which Prophet (PBUH) replied “Umar, if I don’t listen to him who else will”. This is the Prophetic exemplar of approaching people, who are otherwise intellectually incapable, which is expected of any Muslim and for that matter any individual, irrespective of religious denomination, who has any claims to civility, mannerism and adherence to minimal set of human values. Now let’s look at another precedent and stream of behaviour which is spreading like wildfire on social media these days and that is people, who otherwise claim to be sane are seen posting disturbing (and in their opinion entertaining visuals) of people with mental ailments, we as audience (Necessarily not all) derive sadistic pleasure from these disturbing, heart-wrenching and inhuman visuals. Though the two contrary models of behaviour and approach have been cited vis a vis people with mental health issues, but it applies to and defines the entire range of behaviour people usually adopt towards the spectrum of people with disabilities, be the disability physical or mental – now fashionably called special ability, without any effect on ground realities.

Some three thousand odd years ago, Plato committed it to writing that he wanted his utopian state purged of people with disabilities, for they don’t fulfil utilitarian and productive ends of a state. Three thousand years later, we had a frail and meek and disabled body housing the mind of one of the most celebrated intellectuals of all times, Stephen Hawking, not only proving Plato wrong, but turning him on his head. The three millennia that separate us from Plato also saw a host of people from different walks of life, who were otherwise disabled in one way or the other, but made permanent and immense contributions to society and civilization. The necessity to draw attention to the “contributions” of people with disabilities, because our civilizations, both Eastern and Western have made the delivering capacity of an individual as the sore measure and criteria of his/her worth, dignity and right to live. The mechanised, rather technological society which we have found ourselves in has drawn a dictum on the stone that only those are entitled to a life of dignity who can be active agents of material generation, who can generate wealth and material resources, who aren’t meek to rely on others’ helping hand, but who, personifying power and strength can mould the world and tailor it to their needs, thereby proving themselves to be “fruitful individuals for the society”.

This perspective of understanding people in terms of their utilitarian merit has not only overshadowed the concept of humanity as such, but exposed people with disabilities to vulnerabilities and discriminations of all sorts. It is extremely difficult for people, who are otherwise able-bodied, to understand the problems of and empathize with people with disabilities, for the psycho-social dimensions of these problems are so broad that only people with disabilities face them first hand and are rattled and broken by the same. The challenges which people with disabilities face are augmented and multiplied by discouraging social framework, lack of logistical support and prevalence of social mores that deteriorate and aggravate their situation further. To begin with, social construction and perception of people with disabilities is so ill fashioned and misconstrued that at the very outset people with disabilities are seen in the frame of reference of “Other” and such a strict impermeable line of distinction is drawn between able bodied persons and people with disabilities that no room of coexistence or mutual celebration and adoration is left open. Instead, people are divided into two boxes whereby people with disabilities/special abilities are left helpless at the receiving end of stereotyping, bullying, marginalization and social injustice. How do these recurrent episodes of bullying, name-calling and discrimination engender and erode the mental health of people with disabilities goes without saying. Then accompanying this discouraging and debilitating social construction and social perception of people with realities comes the role of structural/government policies in addressing issues specific to people with disabilities and their failure to achieve the same. It starts with the stark absence of a comprehensive policy about people with disabilities which could have guaranteed and restored to them a life of dignity and included them in the holistic participation of society. Policies, even if they are in place, are inefficient and do not attend properly to the needs and necessities of persons with disabilities. Institutes supposed to mitigate the problems of and refine the social identity they could celebrate and organically assimilate are either dysfunctional or have fallen into oblivion of turning people with disabilities into dependable creatures, instead of restoring to them their degrees of mental and physical freedom. Our schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions, which should have instilled in students the spirit of empathy and etiquettes of proper behaviour towards people with disabilities, are seen themselves promulgating and legitimizing discrimination against people with disabilities in more than one ways. What all this amounts to is the culmination and accumulation of difficulties and blockades for people with disabilities, their exclusion from social structure on the whole and an environment of injustice and exploitation of these people.

Having underscored some of the reasons and thereby the implicit solutions to mitigate and address the problems confronted by people with disabilities, let it also be noted that the religion of Islam is very particular and scrupulous in defending and advocating the rights and dignity of people with disabilities and vehemently discourages the attitude of stereotyping and Otherisation of people with disabilities. There are various eschatological and theological explanations as to why God creates people who suffer because of their bodily and mental limitations, but that’s not the subject of debate of this article. What this whole line of argument, as has been followed in this article precipitates at is that people with disabilities, like able bodied persons command an intrinsic life of dignity, honour, participation and inclusion. To leave them out  of the social fabric or enclose them in hard drawn social boundaries amounts to decapitating limbs from human body and as Sa’adi said “Humanity is a body of which individuals are parts”. It is only is recognising the specific role played by a specific part that the dignity of humanity can be restored and reclaimed.

*The phrase “People with disabilities”, instead of better looking terms like “People with special abilities” etc as the author believes that these terms only  gloss over the issues faced by people with disabilities without playing any role  either in their social inclusion or their life  of dignity

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Amir Suhail Wani

The author is a writer and columnist

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