Disabled Lives Matter: Time to take a Cue from America

By Shruti Pushkarna

Millions of people had their eyes set on January 20, 2021. The inauguration ceremony of the 46th President of United States of America being seen as a beacon of hope, to restore faith in democracy. Something the outgoing President had ridiculed in myriad ways, throughout his four years of governance (read disruption).


The feeling of optimism suffused across the world, not just experienced by US residents but all those who witnessed a self-obsessed supremacist make moves (read blunders) that annihilated the very principles of equality, justice, harmony, even humanity.


I, too, was following the election results closely. As someone who strongly advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities, I was elated at the mention of disability in Joe Biden’s victory speech on November 7. Biden is only the second US President apart from Barack Obama to acknowledge disability in his address. He said: “We must make the promise of the country real for everybody, no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability.”


That was a simple yet strong message countering the apathetic ableism portrayed by Donald Trump. The outgoing President consistently discriminated and made derogatory remarks towards the disabled population. After ordering to remove braille labels from Trump Tower, he was quoted saying: “Get rid of the f*****g braille. No blind people are going to live in Trump Tower.” And then there was the famous incident where he mocked a disabled reporter on national television.


Through the 2020 Presidential race, it was clear that Senator Biden stood for everything that Trump wasn’t. The different groups segregated by colour, race, ethnicity, economic status, caste or disabilities were hoping to vote in a leader who could work towards reconciling and bridging the gaps.


Biden included the disabled community in his campaign, promising them accessible healthcare and support for students with disabilities. The inauguration ceremony was presented with live captions, American Sign Language, audio description and other accessibility features on YouTube.


Statistics indicate that nearly one in 12 US children struggle with a disability related to speech, voice, language or swallowing. President Biden had a long battle with stuttering, a neurological condition, impacting the fluent flow of words and speeches. But his open admission and how he overcame this impediment in public speaking turned him into a role model for American kids. How someone with speech impairment could end up in the White House!

The inaugural ceremony featured two other special events that amplified the new administration’s commitment towards inclusion and accessibility. Andrea Hall, a firefighter and Union Leader from Fulton County, Georgia led the Pledge of Allegiance in American Sign Language.


The other inspirational figure was Amanda Gorman, 22-year-old poet laureate. Born prematurely, Amanda was diagnosed with speech and auditory processing disorder.  As she flawlessly recited her moving poem “The Hill We Climb”, her name started trending on Twitter. But Amanda confessed in an interview how hard she had practised because until a couple of years ago, she struggled to pronounce the letter ‘R’. Her disorder makes it difficult for her to accurately pronounce and hear certain sounds. Both Biden and Gorman worked hard on improving their spoken fluency, giving voice to their dreams of a new America.


This celebration of equality reminded me of December 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made two significant announcements with regards to the disabled community in India. The famous ‘Accessible India’ campaign was launched on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a promise to make transport, public spaces, tourist spots, airports, railway stations and all information and communication disabled friendly. Later that month, PM Modi also proposed a change in nomenclature from the word ‘viklang’ (handicapped) to ‘divyang’ (divine body).


While I personally disagreed with the terminology, many believed it would reduce the negative and alienating undertones associated with physically or mentally challenged. The idea was to encourage members of the civil society to see persons with disabilities for their abilities rather than shortcomings.


As for the ‘Accessible India’ campaign, the target was to retrofit buildings, frame guidelines for new buildings and transport, make government websites accessible and also audit private companies on accessibility index. The original deadline of conducting an accessibility audit was July 2016, with a view to make the most important government buildings fully accessible by March 2018. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment further extended this to March 2020 citing “slow progress”.


Even with all the policies in place, inclusion and access remain a distant dream for the disabled in India. Yes, things have improved and innovation in technology makes for easier integration in the digital era. But eventually the actual progress on ground depends on the political will.


I hope President Biden prioritises the needs of the disabled and his actions reflect his real attitude, beyond words. As Amanda Gorman said:


“We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.”