Listen up, Content Developers

By Shruti Pushkarna

At the risk of sounding self-aggrandising, I’d say I’m a fairly empathetic person. Even when I wasn’t working in the disability domain, I was reasonably conscious of the different needs of people. Not like I changed anything around me or was overly vociferous on such subjects, but at least I was ‘aware’.

And that’s what I want to talk about. Awareness.

In my experience, most people end up seeming insensitive towards persons with disabilities out of sheer ignorance. Not necessarily because they are ill-intentioned. Their fault simply lies in their lack of awareness about another’s challenges.

Our reactions stem from what we see and hear. If issues faced by disabled people, or solutions available for them or basic things like how to offer assistance to them becomes common knowledge, our society would score a lot better on the scale of ‘empathy’.

At the root of any change lies the ‘knowledge’ or ‘awareness’ of what is possible or how it can be made possible.

So how do we change this? Or let me ask, who can change this?

Well at one level all of us can, you, me or the guy sipping coffee next to me. But we need a trigger. And in a country of 1.37 billion, a powerful trigger with a wide reach.

If you haven’t guessed it already, I’m hinting at the media. The all-pervasive forms of media which have crept into our living rooms, dining areas, bathrooms and everywhere. The content we absorb actively or passively has the potential to inform and influence mindsets.

I think it’s time media took some responsibility in such a transformation of thinking. In journalism schools, every student is filled with the romanticism of revolutionary ideas and a couple years later in the money-minting business called media, all of it is replaced by ‘sexy sensationalism’.

Sadly, the only coverage we give to disability is a larger than life approach or a pitiful one. Either make them into heroes or paint them as helpless sorts. We need television content, movies, radio campaigns, and digital content to bring persons with disabilities to life like any other section of our population.

The last movie I recall that portrayed blindness was an action thriller called ‘Kaabil’. Wonderful that we had lead actors playing a blind couple, but the woman was taken advantage of on grounds of her inability to see (not like sighted women don’t get easily raped). And the man turned into a super-hero, out to avenge his partner’s murder. Thrilling one would say but unreal. Now the typical argument would be it’s fiction and that too Bollywood. Agreed. But even a movie like that made blindness trend on Twitter around the time of release. A blind dancer recorded her video and tagged Hrithik Roshan. So it did bring out another side of people with vision impairment.

Apart from entertaining, we need content that will expand our scope of imagination by showing us what we don’t see out there on the streets.

Sticking to the subject of movies, a lot of content available on OTT platforms like Netflix today has audio description for the benefit of visually impaired people. That’s a step in the direction of adding a new subscriber group. More users, more income.

As per Census 2011, disabled people constitute 2.21% of the 121 crore population. Large numbers if we look at sheer economics. A mainstream Bollywood movie has a budget of INR 20 to 50 crore. Over 60 million people are visually impaired in India. Half of that population resides in urban centres. With very little investment at the production stage, movies can have a parallel audio description track, opening up access to a wider audience.

Is this difficult to do? No. Is achieving larger audience not an objective of the filmmaker? Of course yes. Then what prevents it? Ignorance. Also a bit of indifference, if I may add. They never thought of it because they don’t know how visually impaired people can enjoy a visual form of media with a minor tweak.

I could go on with several such examples but I think we can all agree that to bring about a paradigm shift, there is need to make the society aware of what’s possible. And more importantly, we need to replace stereotypes like the ‘wheelchair’, the ‘white cane’, the ‘dark glasses’, the ‘disheveled mouth’ etcetera. And promote new images to align our thinking to.

The next time content developers come up with an idea, they need to ask themselves, what’s in it for a person with disability?