A record medal tally at the Tokyo Paralympic Games: 19 medals where, in 13 previous editions, the combined medals tally was just 12. Photo-ops for ministers! Warm fuzzy social media posts! Many, many column inches, and prime time minutes! Could it be, could it be, could it really be that India will now start paying a little more attention to persons with disabilities?
Of course, it’s early days, and of course, I want to be wrong. But as I write this, it’s less than three weeks since the Paralympics flame went out. No more photo-ops. Not much on social media. And cricket, in its IPL avatar, has recolonised our timelines.
Perhaps a more basic question to ask is, will the fabulous Tokyo performance even create a better environment for disabled sportspersons in India? That isn’t my brief, but from what I know, investigative and sports journalists will need to dig deep into the working of the associations concerned to come to an answer. (Spoiler: it isn’t pretty.)
What, then, of those who are not in the sporting limelight?
I ask as the brother of someone who was severely disabled, as someone who has friends who live with disabilities. I know a number of people who work for disability rights; it has been a cause I support in whatever way I can. (To be clear, I do not have any severe disabilities, and I cannot, and do not, speak for the disability community. I write here as an ally, and as someone who has reported, in a small way, stories about disability in India.)
Let’s start by asking who we are talking about. How many disabled people are there in India?
The irony begins here. Because the relevant Census of India page has a 2001 figure, 2.1% of the national population, we must rely on a 2016 statistical profile of disabled persons , which puts the number at 2.21%. Which, people who work in the field will tell you, is, how do I put this politely, an underestimation.
A 2020 World Health Organisation fact sheet says that over a billion people, around 15% of the world’s population, live with some kind of disability, of which up to 190 million (3.8%) aged 15 years and older have “significant difficulties in functioning, often requiring healthcare services.” It would not be uncharitable to assume that a developing country like India would have at least that many, if not more.
Also, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 , recognises 21 categories of disability, 14 more than the seven the previous Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, did; this means that the number of people in India who are now classified as disabled should go up, but the 2.21% figure is what will decide policy, public funds allocated, and much else.
We shall be conservative and work with the official number, 2.21%.
Think back: to your school and college years, to the offices you’ve worked in, to the people you share the streets with, even to those you elect to high office.
Forget all that. Think back to yesterday.
How many disabled people did you encounter?
I’ll wager your answer is none.
2.21% of 1.39 billion is 30,719,000. Put another way, on average, at least one of every 50 people you encounter should have a disability. (If you go by the 15% WHO figure, 208.5 million Indians have disabilities, so at least one or two of every ten people you interact with should have some kind of disability.)
Where are all these 30 million disabled people?
Look at the footpaths you walk on; pay attention to whether there are loose tiles, bumps, crevices, whether a wheelchair could get on them, whether a person with a visual disability could walk them safely. In some cities, you will see bollards at the start and end of footpaths, to prevent two-wheelers from using them as a way to get past traffic jams, but also making it near impossible for a wheelchair to access them. My buddy Divyanshu Ganatra, who is blind, and among many other things, has flown a paraglider solo and runs an inclusive adventure foundation, and is given to mordant humour, says they’re just about groin height, and he knows that from painful experience.
Look at the buildings you frequent, from the ones you live in, to the ones you shop and work in, and the public buildings you need to visit. When they have even one or two steps just to get in, do they have ramps for wheelchairs? Do the elevators have Braille on the buttons and a recorded voice saying what floor they’re stopping at? Are the floors slippery or uneven?
Look at public transport. Could someone with restricted mobility get in and out of the buses, trains, autorickshaws, taxis?
Look at the words we use about disability. ‘Specially-abled’ is a euphemism that riles many disabled people; it’s not, they say, that the ones without vision gain the ability to fly. The suffix ‘-challenged’ is condescending, implying that all it takes to function in a world not designed for you is a bit of effort. And what about ‘ divyang ,’ coined by our Prime Minister and hailed as “the PM’s biggest gift to persons with disabilities”? A letter to the PM in January 2016 signed by 71 organisations and individuals asked that the term not be used. In that letter, and again in an open letter later that year, they said, “Invoking divinity will not lessen the stigma and discrimination that persons with disabilities have been historically subjected to and continue to encounter in their daily lives. […] We would like to reiterate that disability is not a divine gift. And the use of phrases like ‘ divyang ’ in no way ensures de-stigmatisation or an end to discrimination on grounds of disability.”
(Language matters. Let me make it simple for you: say ‘person with a disability.’ It puts the personhood first, it acknowledges the disability, and it does not patronise. Also, language evolves. I am not the last word on this topic, just someone telling what he has learnt; the consensus on what the most inclusive terms are may change.)
With our public and private spaces being so inaccessible, with even our vocabulary paying lip service to disability rights without accepting the reality, it is a minor miracle if you see any disabled people in public spaces at all.
The sad fact is that persons with disabilities do not get the same opportunities as able-bodied people do, whether it’s education, employment, or, heck, simple access to public spaces. (And that’s not even factoring in other issues that hold us back as a nation, like poverty, education, healthcare, caste, gender discrimination.)
As I thought this piece through, I was very aware that I have no severe disabilities, and that I inhabit numerous other privileges. So, I asked a few friends who have disabilities what they thought.
“I’m not very hopeful,” Arman Ali told me. Arman is executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. “This is being looked at as inspiration porn. It is creating more stereotypes than reality. People with disabilities in India struggle for the basic fundamental rights, like accessibility or education, not to mention employment.”
Most Indian Paralympians, Arman says, stay away from the disability rights movement until they get discriminated against. “Unless the Paralympians start talking about disability rights and ask the right questions to the authorities and create a larger awareness about the reality and the struggles of people with disabilities in everyday life, I don’t see it playing any role. We need to address the elephant in the room.”
Shrishti Pandey, a disability rights activist and grad student at Delhi University, says that in the first place, not many people watched the Paralympics coverage. From her own circle, of those who discussed the Olympics, less than half watched the Paralympics events. “I think most of the media coverage was inclined towards inspiration porn,” she says, unconsciously echoing Arman. “I can’t remember which newspaper, but there was this illustration where the ‘dis’ in ‘disability’ was covered with medals. This basically implied that disabled athletes ‘overcame’ their disabilities.”
We are exchanging text messages, but the sadness comes through. “I think that some people still don’t see para-athletes as ‘real’ athletes, you know? And it really shows. This is obviously messed up already and wrong representation by the media only makes it worse.”
Would non-disabled people see persons with disabilities any differently because of Tokyo? “I am not sure if they care enough.”
“Diversity,” Vernā Myers, American author, social commentator, and activist, famously said, “is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
In India, I unhappily conclude, most disabled people aren’t even being told there’s a party happening.
(Peter Griffin is a writer, editor, web show host, and community organiser.)