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June 21, 2016

Understand ABBF: PwD, not disabled or differently-abled

Ever so often, we get called up on why we insist on using the term ‘Persons with Disability’ at Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation. Why not ‘differently-abled’ or ‘specially-abled’ or ‘divyang’ or the various other options that exist to refer to this community of people? Let us tackle them one at a time and see if we can explain ourselves here.

Our issue with the phrases ‘differently-abled’ and ‘specially-abled’ is two-fold. On the one hand, it euphemises the experience of disability, clothes it in colours it is not, and reinforces the image that it is something to be shied away from and whispered about. By using ‘differently-abled,’ you suggest that there is something slightly amiss about that situation, but it is too awkward to talk about. Think of the last time you called something “interesting” or “different” and you will get what we mean. If you really do want to go down the ‘differently-abled’ path, you will hit the next problem. By the strictest definition, we all are ‘differently-abled’. I type faster than you, you do mental Math better than the person next to you, he sings better, she runs faster, what have you. The minute you tread down that path, you are euphemising, belittling, and taking the limelight away from the entire purpose of the conversation.

Next, the newest addition to the list – ‘divyang’. The term ‘divyang’ attributes an aspect of divinity to a person with a disability. Suddenly they become god-like, unattainable, rising above mere mortals on a pedestal that, if you think about it logically, does nothing for the discourse surrounding disability. It also entirely ignores the years of discrimination, lack of access, and ill treatment the community has had to undergo. By making them gods, it all becomes okay. Activists and advocates all around the world are fighting to mainstream disability, ensure people with disability are accepted into everyday society and have access to the same everyday experiences as everyone else. By making them akin to gods, we only alienate them further. Multiple individuals with disability have expressed their discomfort with this pedestal, this need to make “inspirations” of their lives in order to accept, as deeply alienating.

The third on our list is ‘disabled person’. Now, for many of us, there may not seem to be that big a difference between ‘disabled person’ and ‘Person with Disability’ but the difference exists and it is crucial. Let us turn to English grammar to explain it. When we say ‘disabled person,’ the word ‘disabled’ becomes an adjective to the person. What kind of person is that? Disabled person. There is nothing else about that person you know, and the phrase does not leave you any space to learn. ‘Disabled person’ becomes the sole identity. And of course, we all know this is just not true.

This brings us to why we insist on using ‘Persons with Disability’. The simplest reason would be that this is the international convention. India was one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities in 2007, and ‘PwD’ remains the international standard of nomenclature. The real reason however, is deeper than “because they said so.” When we use the phrase PwD, there is automatically an equal onus placed on the ‘person’ and the ‘disability’ – all hail prepositions! It tells you that the person has a disability but in all likelihood, has so much more as well. Here is a person with disability, here is a person with the great haircut, here is a person with the best sense of empathy you know. When you say PwD, you are giving the person the space to be so much more. You are allowing them to be fully human, without reducing them to their disability.

The usage of PwD ties in directly with the social model of disability, the perspective that we subscribe to at ABBF. According to the social model, disability is not an individual problem at all. It is a systemic, social, structural problem. Picture us this – if there is a person who is wheelchair bound, we imagine them to be disabled because of their inability to walk. Why do we walk? To access spaces and places. If these spaces and places had ramps leading up to the door, would this person be able to access them as well? In which case, is the disability in the wheelchair or in the absence of ramps? Thus speaks the social model of disability, arguing for the need for external society to adopt universal accessible design.

Fundamentally, at ABBF, we believe in the power of small things to create change. Our organisation is built on the power of play and we believe that equally influential is the power of language. Use the right words repeatedly and it will seed the thought of change in the collective mind. Use ‘Persons with Disability’ and you will remember the core tenet of our work. Yes, there is disability, but there is also so much more.

Some more interesting articles to read are ‘How “Differently Abled” Marginalises Disabled People’ and ‘In Fact: Why calling India’s disabled ‘divyang’ won’t enable them’

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