There are many ways in which disability has been depicted in poor light in our society, most prominently by words and by actions. The actions against the differently abled are increasingly coming under the ambit of the law. Those who are found guilty of crimes against persons with disabilities are penalised as per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.
However, the depiction of disability through the usage of certain words, catchphrases and idioms are continuing to harm the discourse on disability. Language is an extremely important parameter through which the pulse and the mindset of the society can be analysed. Look at the usage of phrases like “turning a blind eye” and “falling on deaf ears”—both very commonly used phrases in our day-to-day lives. Both phrases refer to the ignorance of an issue by a person, organisation, institution, government, and so on.
You can see how these phrases, which are related to disability, are being used to convey an entirely different meaning, while mocking disability itself, consciously or subconsciously. I say “mocking”, because both phrases have a negative connotation attached to “ignorance”. Therefore, in a way, disability has been equated with ignorance.
Take other common phrases. “Paralysed economy” signifies the unwanted, undesirable situation of the economy. “Coalition running on crutches” implies that a coalition government is losing its power, as it has to depend on unreliable allies for survival.
Both phrases have implications of meaning unreliable, messed-up, powerless, undesirable, unwanted. All these words have been associated with persons with disabilities, adding to the discrimination against them. It isn’t a coincidence that these words and phrases are still in use. It’s because society, consciously or subconsciously, is filled with apathy against the differently abled population. So why are these phrases still used so normally, without being challenged?
Persons with disabilities have been historically marginalised, cutting across state, nation, culture and religion. Societies see persons with disabilities as “others”. The genesis of these phrases are based on malice against the differently abled. People found it easier to convey different entirely meanings by mocking disability, which with time became so normalised that it’s now a part of language itself. Society itself is conditioned to think of disability as a result of “karma”, or past sin, or misfortune. References to such ideas can be found in religious texts across the board—Dhritarashtra and Kubra from the Mahabharata, for instance.
Phrases like these are used casually, without thought, despite the availability of alternatives phrases which do not distort the meaning. There are different ways to convey meaning, rather than use “deaf ears”, “blind eye”, “mute spectators”, and so on—but society still chooses not to.
This “othering” of differently abled people has made it easier for the mainstream society to mock them, hurt them, and discriminate against them. People didn’t challenge the users of these demeaning words because it didn’t affect them, while those who were differently abled found it hard to challenge the mainstream. Disability is in a complex position because it’s a lived reality and sometimes a prominent identity, while for the rest, disability is viewed as a bane and a curse.
This is the crux of the problem. There is still a large percentage of population which views disabled people just as somebody who looks differently than the rest. Their deficiency of “able-ism” (as seen by the mainstream) becomes their entire identity. The disability is then seen as inability by them.
This malicious language is not unique to English. In Hindi, for instance, there’s an idiom “andhon mein kaana raja”, which means that in a group of foolish people, even the one with meager amount of intelligence is considered intelligent. Similarly, “andha baate rewri, ghuri ghuri apne ko de” means that if an undeserving person gets power or something useful which he/she needs to distribute among others, that person would end up keeping the things to himself/herself or to his near and dear ones.
Both these examples convey a different meaning altogether but points towards persons with disabilities in poor light to convey the message. Here, you can see how cunningly disability is associated with the measure of foolishness, while in other case, how disability is associated with nepotism and selfishness.
In Sanskrit, shlokas can be found in a similar vein. For instance, from Hitopadesha:
यस्य नास्ति स्वयं प्रज्ञा, शास्त्रं तस्य करोति किम्।
लोचनाभ्यां विहीनस्य, दर्पणः किं करिष्यति ।।
This means: what is the use of the discipline of study for those who don’t have intellectual capacity, just as there is no use of a mirror for the blind.
Today, when times are changing and discourses on disability are being built, people who till now have been using these words unknowingly should now refrain. Laws and acts can protect the disabled, but people need to change their behaviour as well.
How vocabulary hurts persons with disabilities
Vocabulary is an important component in interpersonal and intrapersonal communication. Words considered hurtful in one culture might not be in others. This happens when some words are bastardised by society at large. The actual meanings of those words become dwarfed in front of symbolic meanings attached to them.
For example: “This person is blind.” This sentence is not derogatory. However, the same sentence in Hindi—“Ye andha hai”—this is quite hurtful and derogatory. Similarly, words in Hindi like “loola” (disability in the upper limbs), “langda” (disability in the lower limbs), “goonga” (speech impairment)—all are widely-used terminologies that are extremely hurtful to persons with disabilities because these words are bastardised. The parallels in English are words like “lame”, “dumb”, “retard”—all words used by people daily.
This shows the able-mindedness of society, as people take their “abelism” as a given. Anyone who doesn’t fall into the “normal” conception of mainstream society is mocked. There are other terms that people with disabilities have supported, such as “mental health disabilities” instead of “mentally ill”. There are numerous guidelines on how to approach language, and how to write in this language, and resources are available if one chooses to look for it. This is how in some cultures, the phrase “differently abled” came about, as opposed to the term “disabled”, though it’s important to note that the usage of this phrase is also questioned. The same rule applies to Hindi, saying “Ye dekh nahi sakta (he is visually challenged)” as opposed to “Dekho ye andha hai (See, he is blind)”.
History has been witness to how societies killed their differently abled population as they were seen as useless and a burden on society. The Nazi regime eliminated many differently abled people in concentration camps. In ancient Rome, people and even babies born with disabilities were killed, by stoning them to death. Today, many families leave their newborn babies in orphanages if they are born differently abled. There are many who feel ashamed and embarrassed about the existence of differently abled people in their families.
Vocabulary matters in making or reducing a discourse. There’s a long way to go in how societies treat people with disabilities, and language is one of these important steps.