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Stereotyping differently-abled persons in visual media perpetuates discrimination: SC

The top court said language that disparages persons with disabilities, marginalises them further and supplements the disabling barriers in their social participation must be approached with caution.
Last Updated : 08 July 2024, 14:15 IST

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New Delhi: Stereotyping differently-abled persons in visual media and films perpetuates discrimination and inequality, the Supreme Court said on Monday while asking filmmakers to refrain from misleading portrayal of such persons and not to lampoon them.

The top court said language that disparages persons with disabilities, marginalises them further and supplements the disabling barriers in their social participation must be approached with caution.

A bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud said words cultivate institutional discrimination and terms such as “cripple” and “spastic” have come to acquire devalued meanings in societal perceptions about persons with disabilities.

They contribute to the negative self-image and perpetuate discriminatory attitudes and practices in society, the apex court said while enumerating a framework of the portrayal of persons with disabilities in visual media.

"Language that individualises the impairment and overlooks the disabling social barriers (e.g. terms such as “afflicted”, “suffering”, and “victim”) should be avoided or adequately flagged as contrary to the social mode.

"Creators must check for accurate representation of a medical condition as much as possible. The misleading portrayal of what a condition such as night blindness entails may perpetuate misinformation about the condition, and entrench stereotypes about persons with such impairments, aggravating the disability," the bench also comprising Justice J B Pardiwala said.

Observing that persons with disabilities are under-represented, the top court said average people are unaware of the barriers persons with disabilities face.

"Visual media must reflect their lived experiences. Their portrayal must capture the multitudes of their lived realities, and should not be a uni-dimensional, ableist characterisation.

"Visual media should strive to depict the diverse realities of persons with disabilities, showcasing not only their challenges but also their successes, talents, and contributions to society. This balanced representation can help dispel stereotypes and promote a more inclusive understanding of disability," the bench said.

It said such portrayals should reflect the multi-faceted lives of persons with disabilities, emphasising their roles as active community members who contribute meaningfully across various spheres of life.

"By highlighting their achievements and everyday experiences, media can shift the narrative from one of limitation to one of potential and agency.

"They should neither be lampooned based on myths (such as, ‘blind people bump into objects in their path’) nor presented as ‘super cripples’ on the other extreme. This stereotype implies that persons with disabilities have extraordinary heroic abilities that merit their dignified treatment," the bench said.

The apex court said decision-making bodies must bear in mind the values of participation.

"The ‘nothing about us, without us’ principle is based on the promotion of participation of persons with disabilities and equalisation of opportunities. It must be put to practice in constituting statutory committees and inviting expert opinions for assessing the overall message of films and their impact on dignity of individuals under the Cinematograph Act and Rules...

"Collaboration with disability advocacy groups can provide invaluable insights and guidance on respectful and accurate portrayals, ensuring that content aligns with the lived experiences of persons with disabilities," the bench added.

The top court said training and sensitization programmes should be implemented for individuals involved in creating visual media content, including writers, directors, producers, and actors.

These programmes should emphasise the impact of their portrayals on public perceptions and the lived experiences of persons with disabilities, it said.

"Topics should include the principles of the social model of disability, the importance of respectful language, and the need for accurate and empathetic representation. Regular workshops and collaboration with disability advocacy groups can foster a deeper understanding and commitment to responsible portrayal," the bench said.

The court said creative freedom of the filmmaker cannot include the freedom to lampoon, stereotype, misrepresent or disparage those already marginalised.

"There is a difference between a film that is set in the backdrop of communal violence and which cannot eschew depiction of violence from portrayal that outright extols such violence.

"Similarly, if the overall message of the work infringes the rights of persons with disabilities, it is not protected speech, obviating the need for any balancing. However, in appropriate cases, if stereotypical/disparaging portrayal is justified by the overall message of the film, the filmmaker’s right to retain such portrayal will have to be balanced against the fundamental and statutory rights of those portrayed," it said.

The verdict came on a plea filed by one Nipun Malhotra, who submitted that the Hindi film 'Aankh Micholi' contained deprecatory references to differently-abled persons.

The Sony Pictures Films India project, written by Jitendra Parmar, revolves around a "family of misfits".

The movie's cast features actors Abhimanyu, Mrunal Thakur, Paresh Rawal, Sharman Joshi, Divya Dutta, Abhishek Banerjee, Darshan Jariwala, Grusha Kapoor and Vijay Raaz.

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Published 08 July 2024, 14:15 IST

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