Before I started writing this piece, I casually googled ‘media and disability’. Interestingly, most results were pertaining to the role of the media, portrayal of disability, some academic papers on the subject and so on. Well, that’s typically what comes to mind when you throw these two words together at anyone.
Having crossed over to the disability sector from journalism, I have witnessed several debates (both in official and informal settings) where disability experts, people with acquired disability, scholars and mediapersons battle with each other, presenting their views on the subject.
Again, most debates are focused on ‘representation’. I find the premise of all such discussions fallacious. Our debates, writings, films, stories, all are from an ‘external’ standpoint. It’s always from ‘how I understand it’, or ‘how I perceive it’ or ‘what I have gathered from my research’. And that’s why any coverage or any engagement with disability in the media is at the surface level. Still.
This is part of the reason why stories and accounts are either heroic or pitiful. What I see lacking is the ‘normalisation’ of the idea. We like to compartmentalise issues and people into boxes that are easier to handle. Look at them a certain way rather than making them a part of the overall landscape of things.
In the process, someone else decides what is the issue, how does it impact a life and how it should be tackled. The understanding of it, once or twice removed.
As a communications specialist, I recognise the influencing power of the media and the fraternity. Common notions of disability arise from our media exposure. The images and words that come to mind are ‘wheel chair’, ‘crippled’, ‘handicap’, ‘dependent’, ‘incapacitated’, ‘vegetable’ etc. Clearly, these are neither complete nor correct.
Let’s try to break this down. ‘Disability’ is basically a condition that ‘limits’ a person. This condition could be mental or physical, it could be permanent or temporary. It could be a condition present from birth or acquired later in life. But it’s a ‘condition’. A person with disability is a person with certain limitations, but still a ‘person’. That’s what we often miss out on. We tend to focus on the disability so much that we seldom learn anything about the person. The person may be educated or a school dropout, interested in adventure sports or music, may be a foodie, or a movie buff.
How often do you see a person with disability invited to a public forum to present views on anything other than disability issues? What about the regular issues that affect citizens of this country, like infrastructure, climate change, taxes, education, unemployment or inflation? Do these not equally affect this section of society? Or are we assuming that disabled people don’t access any services, like you and I do.
According to Census 2011, 2.2 per cent of India’s (then) 121 crore population is disabled. And these are government statistics, way less than the actual numbers. There is a legislation called the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) 2016 that lists out 21 types of disabilities. The RPWD Act mandates equal access to all facilities and services to persons with disabilities. The Act is progressive in its view of shifting the focus from ‘reservations and entitlements’ to ‘empowerment and inclusion’.
A policy can be enforced and implemented. But for it to become a ‘practice’, mindsets have to be altered. That’s what media can help with.
Attitudes can often be more disabling rather than the actual barriers in access. I have worn spectacles since Class 2 or 3, I don’t even remember. My inability to see without glasses is also a ‘disability’. But spectacles can cover up for my impairment. Kids in my school use to single me out and poke fun at my thick glasses but with time, it changed. Slowly, with more people dependent on correctional lenses, it became ‘normal’ (it’s a full-blown market today!).
It’s what we see and how much of it we see. If today in schools and workplaces, we start encountering persons with vision impairment, speech impairment, or any other disability, that will gradually become the new normal.
Certain sectors like IT, hospitality and education have started employing persons with disabilities. Their limitations are easily addressed with small changes in the physical or digital environment. This has helped businesses understand the needs of the larger disabled population better. The media should also consider hiring them, so the ‘normalisation’ of disability can happen from within.
This will change how people respond to ‘disability’. The element of shock or awe will slowly be replaced by a more pragmatic approach.
Today, when I go to a movie theatre, I’m happy to see seats reserved for people in wheelchairs. But the access to the cinema still remains an issue. On several occasions, I have seen wheelchair-bound people being physically lifted by four staff members to get them to a seat just so they can access mainstream entertainment.
If it were easily ‘accessible’, more people in wheelchairs would be seen at the movies. Last year, I attended a special screening of the film ‘Sanju’ at PVR Cinemas in Delhi, for blind and visually impaired people. Wondering how blind people can see a movie? Well, they do. Often accompanied by sighted people who can help them follow the missing links in the absence of dialogues. Technology has reduced that dependence too. An app called XL Cinema, free to download on an Android phone, can enable a blind person to follow ‘audio description’ of the movie alongside the actual screening.
There is the issue of access and then the issue of dignity. The industry needs to address both. And that will happen when we deal with them as ‘people’ and not as a mere ‘section with special needs’.
According to Census 2011, there are around 104 million people aged 60 years or above. This group of people may also fall into the bracket of ‘people with special needs’. Similarly, with a sizeable percentage of disabilities caused by road accidents, India’s overall disabled population is constantly on the rise. We cannot ignore or outcast them.
Often our imagination is curtailed because of their lack of participation in mainstream activities and spaces. Their absence leads to a confined view, further forcing them to live on the peripheries.
This year, the theme of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is to promote their participation in the development agenda. The UN-defined Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development pledges on ‘leaving no one behind’. The media needs to look at ‘disability’ as a cross-cutting issue and promote inclusion in every sphere.
Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist (part of the founding team of MxMIndia). who has now moved full-time to the social sector. She heads operations of the New Delhi-based Score Foundation where she works as Director. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna