Why Dissociate Dignity from Disability?

By Shruti Pushkarna

There comes a point in life when everyone needs a bit of help. As I write this piece, I am writhing in pain. On any given day, I score myself quite high on the strength quotient when it comes to overcoming challenges, even physical discomfort. But not today. I sought professional help, acknowledging my inability to deal with the situation.

People seek support from friends, family and even total strangers at times. We all need assistance, it could be physical, emotional or financial. But despite the universal need, seeking help is often likened to a weakness. It puts the person giving help on a pedestal, patronising the one receiving it.

In the case of persons with disabilities, help denotes lifelong dependence, typecasting them as vulnerable lesser humans. The ableist majority draws exclusive bubbles around those who use assistive devices like the white cane, wheelchair, hearing aid, crutches, et cetera. Maybe that’s why most people don’t like to reveal their need for assistance. They’d rather stay at home, hidden away from the mainstream.

Just last week, I was listening to two accomplished visually impaired men, narrate adventurous accounts from their respective travelogues. As I heard them recall experiences of paragliding, trekking, museum hopping, both individuals seemed fairly independent in terms of navigating and exploring sites. And yet they both sought help when required. Unapologetically so.

It makes me wonder, is it our portrayal through various forms of media that aid and assistance are synonymous with inability and suffering? In aligning dependency with misery, do we reinforce societal stereotypes, further stigmatising disability?

Quite possible. Because not only are we victims of limited imagination, we also love to box and label people who appear different in any way. Their needs seem different from ours, so our egos offer us an automatic upgrade over ‘the other’.

This also makes me wonder if we subconsciously dissociate dignity from disability. One may often witness a peculiar insensitivity in the way people offer help. I’ve seen blind individuals being pulled by their clothes, dragged by their arms or forced to sit in a wheelchair in public places. Another common sight is orthopedically impaired being picked up or pushed in a crude manner, their clothes disheveled in the process, with a total disregard for the individual.

Coming back to the talk I heard last week. It reminded me of my own travels and so many points where I stopped to ask for assistance. Never did I feel a sense of guilt or shame in doing so. Then why should disabled people be made to feel different on the basis of ‘special needs’?

The general public in a cinema hall, a shopping plaza, a restaurant, or an amusement park scoffs at a senior citizen or a disabled person. I’m sure you’ve all seen it at some point. The inherent principle at play being, ‘only the able-bodied are entitled to services, facilities they can access independently.’ Let that sink in.

If the disabled or elderly ask for assistance in such places, it’s seen as a burden on the management because the janata is wondering: ‘why are they out of their homes in the first place?’

And, no, I’m not making that last part up. Couple of years ago I was out in a fancy mall in the capital city and I tweeted a few pictures pointing out certain inaccessible elements for persons with blindness. I was appalled at one of the common responses to my post, people wanted to know what was a blind person doing outside. Some went a bit further to mock my defence, asking if my own home was designed to accommodate a disabled person. As a matter of fact, it is.

But what’s the real issue here? If taking assistance or help of any form can enable larger sections of the population to experience normal life, why shouldn’t they do so? Why are they forced to think of it as currying a favour? Picture a toddler being helped up and down by the parent. How’s that image different in the context of dependence? There is no stigma attached to that depiction because it has been ‘normalised’ in our minds.

According to the World Health Organisation, ‘the number of people with disabilities is increasing due to population growth, ageing, emergence of chronic diseases and medical advances that preserve and prolong life, creating overwhelming demands for health and rehabilitation services.’

That simply puts more people in the bracket of ‘those seeking help’ in the years to come. People are already experiencing temporary disability due to Covid-19, as some have reported to lose their sense of smell after contracting the virus.

Speaking of vulnerability, television news today seems the most helpless. It desperately needs an intervention in form of better content, possibly a new business model, and improved perspectives even. In short, journalism too is crying for help. So why vilify only a select few?