Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Just a tool in their hands (A Critical Analysis)

Just a tool in their hands

Isaac Newton famously said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." So, as a person with disability, I should be flattered that Arvind Kejriwal and India Against Corruption (IAC) have tried to stand on the shoulders of persons with disabilities to strike at alleged corruption in the UPA government. Similarly, I should also be happy that Union Minister Salman Khurshid and his wife Louise have brought disability to the front page of every newspaper.

I do not know the truth about the allegations of forgery and the other lurid aspects of the claims made by IAC against the Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust run by the Khurshids. As a lawyer, I have been trained to rely only on facts and not allegations and therefore this article is not about the claims made by Kejriwal.

This article is primarily for me to vent my anger at the distasteful way in which both sides have used persons with disabilities to further their case. Those of you who watched the interview of Louise Khurshid on a leading English TV channel would have seen a disabled gentleman sitting on her left. This gentleman did not say a single word during the interview. In a sense, the entire story was about that gentleman, but it was so obvious that he was being used as a prop by Louise Khurshid that it became embarrassing to even watch him. The TV channel obviously thought so too and after a few minutes completely cut him out of the picture.

Similarly, Kejriwal is using persons with disabilities to push his agenda. He has gone so far as to say that he will field a disabled candidate against Salman Khurshid in the next elections.

So what impression do I get from all this coverage and what does this posturing say about persons with disabilities? To me, it seems very clear that both Kejriwal and Louise Khurshid believe that persons with disabilities have no point of view and need mouthpieces to express their opinion. It is also clear that they assume, wrongly, that persons with disabilities are waiting around for handouts whether in terms of wheelchairs or the chance to stand for elections. Persons with disabilities have been used by both of them as the opposite of "arm candy" — to generate sympathy for their respective causes simply by getting persons with disabilities sitting around.

All this points to the simple fact that persons with disabilities are still regarded as second-class citizens in this country and we cannot do anything without the charity of able-bodied persons. Yes, it is true that we need accommodation and changes to the infrastructure in many cases for us to be able to exercise our rights on an equal basis with others. But these changes and accommodation must be based on the recognition of the equal rights of persons with disabilities and not on pity. We do not need people in power being patronising towards us and providing us help because they either feel sorry for us or because they feel good that "they did something good for those helpless people". The Constitution of India has guaranteed equality to all its citizens, including its disabled ones. All legal and policy changes we have been fighting for has been on the basis that we have equal rights guaranteed under the Constitution and that changes are required to enable us to meaningfully exercise our rights. Unless this fundamental aspect is recognised, any change will only reinforce the prejudices against us, and downstream implementation of these laws would be based on the mercy of the implementers.

I would like to point out a hidden opportunity that persons with disabilities have for politicians. It is estimated that almost 10 per cent of India's population is disabled. At present, the large majority of the disabled population is not organised into any political group. This largely ignored constituency is eagerly waiting for the first political leader to understand the real concerns of persons with disabilities and take concrete steps to include them into mainstream society. The first person to do this will be able to get votes from a large percentage of its population. Clearly Kejriwal, who is looking at politicising disability, is approaching this issue from the wrong perspective.

Of course, Louise Khurshid and Arvind Kejriwal may be genuinely concerned about the welfare of persons with disabilities. But from what I saw, neither of them has understood that the real concern of a person with disability is that s/he should be treated with respect and as a person first and foremost, and not a tool.

The writer is with the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy

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