Reexamining the issue of special categories in a holistic perspective

Thinking about disability afresh would involve a radical shift in our mindsets. For ages we, the ‘normative’, are used to thinking about disability as the other inevitability inviting a consideration with a sense of kindness and pity. We have not even been able to arrive at a suitable classification since as the parameters of our ‘pity’ change with changing times, we begin to classify people with the so-called visual, hearing or orthopaedic impairment as ‘persons with disability’, ‘disabled’, ‘differently abled’ or even ‘differently talented’.

 All these are ‘kindness’ based improvements on the earlier classification of ‘blind’, ‘deaf and dumb’ and ‘lame’ etc. We forget that it is difficult to conceptualize a human who is not disabled in some sense of the term. If we pull together the number of children, aged people, pregnant women, sick, injured, psychologically disturbed etc., I am not sure who will raise his/ her hand to be counted out.
It is just that we have created a world that is designed to exclude a certain category of people who can potentially function and contribute to society as much as anybody else. There is overwhelming evidence that the so-called ‘blind’ or ‘visually-impaired’ can do everything that our ‘normal’ person (who actually does not exist except perhaps in Krishnas and Helens) can do; sometimes better. Any person with visual impairment of any degree can read and write competently if she has a laptop with say Jaws on it; she can negotiate her way on any road or street or building, if these are designed properly. Braille is a full-blown writing system and thanks to modern technology, an electronic Braille machine can produce copies like any photocopying machine.

Similarly a hearing-impaired person can do everything that the ‘normal’ person of our imagination can do. What we need to do is to appreciate that Sign Language is a ‘real language’ like any other language. It is not just a set of gestures. It has like any other language, its own lexicon and syntax. Rest is simple. We must have provisions for professional signers in all public spaces including schools, colleges and offices. We refuse to do this and then build stories of inclusion.

Those who are classified as having ‘orthopaedic impairment’ actually need nothing more than a more realistic and meaningful restructuring of our space including access to buildings  and mobility on the roads. Again we first make all our structures unfriendly to all these people and then spend token amounts of money to display our ‘kindness’. Imagine how much extra it would cost to make every toilet disabled friendly; so-called ‘normal’ people can use it anyway (rather than have a metropolis where the only place a person on wheel-chair may, in a moment of need, think of is the airport!!). Why is it so difficult to plan roads, buildings, parking areas, toilets in general in such a way that all people can use them comfortably. 

Inhuman ways

Exclusion, often in ruthless and inhuman ways, has been the standard reply of the ‘civilized’ world consisting of ‘normal’ people to those whom they define as ‘deviant’; they would rather keep them in jails, mental asylums, sanatoriums, leper houses, outside the village boundaries etc. After perfecting methods of exclusion, separate plans are made for inclusion. There is rarely if ever an attempt to re-examine the issue historically in a holistic perspective so that we could start planning a society which would not include any persons of special categories.

That we are all human and equal in every sense of the term is more than anything else shown by language. All children, irrespective of whether they have any visual, hearing or orthopaedic impairment, become linguistic adults by the age of about four years. This means all of them master the basic structure and vocabulary of human language by that age and can understand and articulate new ideas through language. The hearing impaired of course would use the sign language.

It is only in the case of highly cognitively damaged children that language acquisition may not take place in the same manner and even in these cases it is possible to think of a more inclusive society. Those who may have read Smith and Tsimpli’s The Mind of a Savant (Blackwell) would note that children even with very low cognitive abilities manage to acquire several languages. Language then is a great leveller; as they say, when it comes to language form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd. Here is perhaps the most significant celebration of universal human dignity.

There is then an urgent need to rethink about how we wish to plan our future society in terms of its institutions and its general architecture. There is not a single person around who can claim that he or she does not suffer from some physical or mental problem. A real inclusive society would be one in which we don’t need to make any special plans for inclusion as is the fashion today. There may for a very small percentage be still a need for specialized institutions but these will be a part of the plan rather than add-ons, often ill-maintained and hardly ever sufficiently sustained.

(The writer is a retired professor and head, dept of linguistics, University of Delhi)

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