Politicians challenged on disability

Preeti Mehra New Delhi | Updated on April 18, 2014

Political rhetoric has repeatedly implied that persons with disabilities are unable to discharge any responsibility

The matter does not end with Narendra Mod’s aide Amit Shah vowing not use “abusive or derogatory” language and the Election Commission lifting its ban on him holding public rallies. Rather, this is where it begins. Though in this case the colour of language was communal, can it be condoned if language bandied from the podium belittles a class, caste, gender, community or public entity?

Election 2014, a hot-headed battle for power among a list of parties, has been exceptionally virulent in its political rhetoric when it comes to attacks, jibes, and derogatory remarks.

The disability community, in particular, has come out strongly against the choice of metaphors that have been used which go all out to denigrate the abilities, functions and sensibilities of people with disabilities.

“The country does not want a deaf and dumb, handicapped government,” the Prime Minister aspirant Narendra Modi has shouted from the dais more than once. In Jamshedpur during a rally it was heard loud and clear, while in Chennai recently, the translator who was a person with disability chose to use the term “weak government” instead in Tamil.

PA Sangma used almost the same imagery a few years ago as the BJP-backed candidate for the President’s office. “India should have a President who is not blind, dumb and deaf. India should have a thinking and a functional President,” he had said.

“Implicit in the statements is that persons with disabilities are unable to discharge any responsibility let alone hold public office,” says the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled which recently condemned such remarks. “There are any number of persons with disabilities, the blind and the deaf included, who have made sterling contributions in public life. Whatever the provocation, even at the height of a bitter political campaign, usage of such terms to deride political opponents is unpardonable. Such insensitivity and callous remarks made with the intent of deriding your opponents cannot be condoned and go unchallenged.”

Pointing out that the use of language is a window to the kind of prejudices a person harbours, a disability activist observes, “The comments reveal a deep-rooted bias of believing that persons with disabilities do not have adequate ability and are lesser than them, besides being in bad taste”.

“In India it is common to use disability metaphors to denote inability,” says self advocate and disability rights activist Nilesh Singit, who responded to the PM candidate’s comment with a tweet that he could not vote for someone who used derogatory language. “You are a PM candidate, made such racists comments against PWDs. Apologise. Yeh apko shoba nahi deta,” he had written.


Tweets on politics have been repeat offenders in using disability images. After Manmohan Singh’s press conference in January, a political commentator wrote, “PM Manmohan Singh claiming Rahul Gandhi as the best PM candidate is like the blind leading the dumb to teach the deaf.”

Though the disability community has only “urged the Election Commission of India to take suitable action” and has not made an official complaint to the Election Commission on the issue, among its 19 million voters it is a communication that has gone viral.

“Most political parties see us as a niche constituency, but we are a vote bank to reckon with,” says an activist as she points out that recently a back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that one out of every six voters was in some way connected to disability and supported their movement.

Published on April 18, 2014

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