By Yogesh Yadav
‘Man is a social being’, a famous proverb repeatedly idealised in society to denote the inter-dependency of human beings on one another. Everybody cares for the other and likes to be cared for; thus, it is a politics of give and take. Politics is a game of power. Hence, in order to gain power, gendered roles have been defined over a period of time; domestic chores assigned to women and the task of earning livelihood outside home to men. Nevertheless, inter-dependency of man and woman is of utmost necessity to run the worldly affairs of a family or society. However, conceptualising women’s bodies as weak and confining their role within the four walls subordinates them and gives them the position of second class humans. Consequently, some feminists have declared marriage as an act of bondage for women.
Thus, the human body is used as a key factor for engendering different roles for different people. What about those who are bodily impaired? They are generally regarded incapable of doing anything in India, on the grounds of their impairments. Their potentials are generally not recognised. Consequently, they are considered wholly dependent on others and passive care recipients. Even, economically self-reliant and well educated disabled are pitied and their contribution towards their friends, families, and society is seldom recognised. This paper will incorporate such stories of blind people, where despite their intellectual, educational, and economic prowess, their helplessness is reminded and their capabilities are overlooked. Being blind myself, I have a privilege to have access to friendly blind community, which eases my efforts to record their oral testimonies. I will use their voices here to verify my hypothesis.
Sahil is one of the blind persons whom I have talked with. He narated the story of his graduation times when he had a girlfriend. He graduated from one of the elite colleges of Delhi University. Due to their common experience of marginalisation by their class-fellows on grounds of disability, class, and caste, they developed a close friendship with each other. She was a Dalit girl from the countryside and not good at English. They had a good time together, studied together, and cared for each other. Sahil tells me that, initially, she used to read books for him but later on, he discontinued the practice and began to read using screen readers. He did so as he wanted her to devote all her time to her own studies.
Whenever they used to roam around the college or go to market, her friends and other people always appreciated her for her helping nature towards Sahil. People often used to say to him that he ought to be obliged to her. “Nobody was able to recognise us as potentially equal beings and the fact that our friendship was based on a kind of selflessness,” says Sahil. He adds, “It’s true that she read books for me but I explained the arguments and made her understand them. I translated English readings and teachers’s lectures for her. I supported her morally many a time and brought several positive shifts in her life. However, whenever people saw us sitting and studying together, they always thought that I was being taught by her.”
Whenever he approached his teachers to discuss his special educational needs, few of them showed their inability to fulfill them and asked her to help him out as if only she would have the panacea for all his problems, Sahil recollects. Other classmates and teachers did not get involved directly in addressing the educational accommodations he required. Actually, such exclusionary attitude is ubiquitous in this ableist society, which treats blind people as obligations. Constant reiteration of such attitude compels sighted friends to be sceptical about their friendships with blind people. Having found themselves boycotted and isolated by society, on many occasions, they feel pressured to exit from their friendships with blind people. A caring attitude that masks the belief in incapacity of the disabled becomes detrimental to their social relations. Consequently, both of them were forced to opt for seclusion to be rid of the ill-effects of the social pressures on their friendship, says Sahil.
Dinkar (28) is a Probationary Officer in the State Bank of India, living in Delhi with one of his friends. His friend is preparing for Indian Administrative Services. Dinkar is taking care of all his friend’s needs in terms of the support he needs to study, which include lodging and food. In fact, the friend also has access to a luxurious life, thanks to Dinkar’s house being equipped with airconditioning as well as the opportunity to have food of his choice. By virtue of the friend living with Dinkar, he would have to assist him in a few tasks like going for a half-hour morning walk, calling a rickshaw that would take Dinkar to his office, accompanying him while shopping and buying grocery on a weekly basis. Dinkar says, “I am often reminded by people that his stay with me is a great support to me; he is a very nice guy, serving humanity. God bless him.”
My experience has shown me that people maintain deeply prejudiced views about blind people. While visiting different libraries and archives with my hired research assistant in search of data, I found that people pity me and at the same time shower her with their blessings for her ‘kindness’ towards me. While taking autos or rickshaws to commute, I have noticed that auto drivers or rickshaw-pullers behave as if they are performing charitable acts, as if they are doing me a favour by giving me a ride. On the Delhi metro, attendents are provided to all disabled people to make their journeys comfortable and accessible. But, in my experience, on several occasions, the Metro staff make people like me wait for a long time and if we ask them to call the attendent quickly, they respond rudely and behave as if we are committing a sin by asking for assistance. They do not recognise the fact that an accessible journey is a fundamental right of disabled people and enabling this right is their responsibility.
Sameer (my friend with Cerebral Palsy) shared an incident in a conversation with me. He had once tried to give some support to a very old woman, who was about to fall to the ground in the premises of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) but she had declined his help saying that she was not like him. It shows people’s intolerant attitude to ever consider thinking of people with disabilities as care-givers. When I try to help my family-members in their domestic tasks, I am generally stopped. It happens with many disabled people when they try to do the same. However, hundreds of blind parents are performing household duties and bringing up their children successfully. Besides, their educational and earning caliber is valued in impoverished families but they are still denied care activities.
Care has a different connotation for different people. For instance, overprotective attitude of people towards disabled may be construed as caring nature for them, which is certainly not empowering for the disabled. Similarly, many banking services are denied to the blind in the name of caution. It is generally argued by bankers that they might be cheated easily by other people if banking services are given to them. Several of their rights are denied in the name of ‘caring’ for their safety and security.
Actually, notions of tragedy, agony, and suffering are perceived as being so intimately associated with having a disability, by virtue of which they can only be conceptualized as recepients of care, that the investment disabled people might have in caring for others becomes completely invisible. Their relationships with friends and society are not measured on equal grounds as illustrated above. Their friendships are not recognised as friendships. The concept of interdependence is to be forgotten when disability is talked about. Many a times, people feel repugnance to be cared for by a disabled person as is the case with Sameer. The common perception of disabled people as permanent passive recipients of care relegates them to the bottom of the social hierarchy. If one were to think of this in terms of the social model of disability, it is their rejection as potential care givers that excludes them from interdependent society.
Finally, I would argue that holding the hand of a blind person or helping them cross the road is not always unilateral or emanates out of the pity. Many times, there is a sense of politics behind it which should be understood. Sometimes, young men may help blind people in public or in front of their women friends to show off their humane nature, in order to get their attention. Sometimes, they are helped because they are merely good friends and, on several occasions, they are supported as they create monetory opportunities for many. They are helped, often, because they are the only source of livelihood for their families. I do not intend to argue that they are doing any charity to society but they are also filled with the sense of their responsibilities to society. In the world of sighted people, the marginalisation of persons with blindness is therefore garbed in the form of overt care. Despite these facts, the contribution of disabled people to society is made invisible which needs to be talked about, recognised, and respected. Thus, concepts like respecting disability as diversity and interdependency have to be taught, inculcated and fostered with the hope that they would be helpful to demolish biased negative attitudes (biggest barrier in the construction of disability) of people towards their disabled counterparts.
Yogesh Kumar Yadav is a doctoral student at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU and Assistant Professor at CAS, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University. His M.Phil. dissertation was titled ‘Educating the ‘Disabled’ in Twentieth-Century India: Some Historical and Contemporary Issues’.
This article first appeared on Cafe Dissensus. To read the original article click HERE. Views expressed here are personal.