Changing the Discourse on Disability

By Shruti Pushkarna

It’s 2020. As we cheer for new beginnings, it’s also time to reminisce on the years gone by.

The last decade witnessed some significant changes in how we look at ‘disability’. When I was still in my twenties (now don’t try to guess my age!), there was hardly any mention of terms like ‘access’ or ‘inclusion’. In fact, the most commonly used term for disabled people was ‘handicapped’.

Fortunately, we have seen a gradual shift come about in the past few years. Thanks to government campaigns and the latest Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, newer terms have been added to the general media usage when it comes to disability-related issues.

Of course awareness levels aren’t the same across media. I still see reports using the word ‘lame’, ‘retarded’, ‘dumb’ etc. That’s more of an oversight due to lack of awareness. It’s ignorance more than ill-intent.

Clearly, there is a need to sensitise society, so it becomes more welcoming of persons with disabilities. Media can help transform how we perceive disabled people, not as outcastes but as equal citizens.

Wheelchairs and ramps have been around for some time now and we’ve been exposed to seeing orthopaedically-challenged people in public spaces. But in the last five to six years, society has been introduced to the concept of ‘access’ for people with varied needs.

Two flagship campaigns of the ruling government — ‘Digital India’ and ‘Accessible India’ — have triggered significant changes in the physical and the virtual space. Access to basic services like hailing a cab, booking movie tickets, catching a flight, making online payments, has become more of a reality compared to the distant dream it was.

Once these businesses acknowledge their new clientele, they will need to make conscious efforts to cater to this target group. For instance, wheelchair-bound people and persons with vision impairment access movies. It could be in the cinema hall or on online platforms like Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon etc. Content developers and distributors need to recognise their specific needs and include them as part of their overall outreach plans.

In my experience, changes in the physical environment happen only when attitudinal shifts have been brought about. Media has the power to change the discourse of this and the coming decades.

Let’s admit it, people turned empathetic towards anyone suffering from autism after ‘My Name is Khan’ and ‘Barfi’. Dyslexia became acceptable after ‘Taare Zameen Par’. Back in the day, movies like ‘Koshish’ and ‘Sparsh’ also introduced people to the challenges of living life with hearing, speech and vision impairment. But the lack of social media in those days limited the impact of such cinema.

We now have a powerful digital media which can sow the seeds of a new idea and create a tsunami of threads around it in the blink of an eye. End-result: people start talking of things they have otherwise not encountered. Once it reaches dinner-table conversations, objective achieved. So much needs to be done in terms of informing people, sharing data points, helping them form clear opinions, washing away archaic misconceptions. And who better to do this job than our media.

Today, our society has reached a point where we are questioning almost everything. Our leadership, judiciary, journalism and democracy on a whole seem to be on a shaky ground. I see this as an opportunity to build something new.

At a time when we are receding towards hatred and intolerance, I see an opportunity for the media to build on empathy for all Indians. The debate on equality has been initiated with the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. There is room for widening the scope of this discussion and integrating all those sections of people who haven’t so far been treated ‘equally’ or ‘fairly’.

Let this decade denote a fight against all ‘discrimination’ and creation of a ‘New Empathetic India’.