Anita Ghai explores disability as a social, cultural and political phenomenon and marks a fundamental shift from the standard clinical, medical or therapeutic perspectives on the subject. FeministsIndia presents a short write up on the book from the author and an extract from Chapter 7 of the book
Rethinking Disability in India explores disability as a social, cultural and political phenomenon and marks a fundamental shift from standard clinical, medical or therapeutic perspectives on the subject. It interrogates issues such as identification of the disabled and the forms of oppression they face, disability rights and theory, and calls for developing and debating critical disability concerns.
Weaving together cultural, social and psychological themes ranging from cultural conceptions of karma, historical Hindu mythological representations of disability, psycho-emotional aspects of living in a disabling world to gendered relational issues of community life. The book provides much nuanced understandings of fate, charity, giving and recognition. Throughout the use of psychological concepts and ideas are made with a strict adherence to recognizing the dominant cultural imaginary.
As the author writes in this text ‘my contention is that whether it is disability or some other form of marginalization, the significant question is how we accommodate this difference. In the specific historical context of the neoliberalism which attaches value to individualism and not inter-dependence, the disabled person is perceived as having a deficit’.
Writing from an Indian context permits Ghai to recognize the cultural, economic and historical complexities of disability and impairment. As she writes in this book ‘the comprehension and meaning of disability in India has been understood as embedded in multiple cultural discourses that are subtly nuanced’.
This allows Ghai to examine religion and spirituality, tradition and community alongside wider global issues of medicalization, administrative definition and measures of disability and difference. It discusses some complex themes such as the gendered nature of disability, sexuality, mercy killing, prenatal selection of foetuses, cochlear implants as well as the lack of economic support from the state.
Finally, it argues for an interdisciplinary approach to disability studies, bringing together personal, social, cultural, historical, critical, and literary perspectives. This volume also focuses on the politics of identity and engages with the dichotomy of ability/disability.
As she states in the last chapter ‘the previous chapters are a record of the lives of disabled people in India who have lived — and continue to live — a difficult life’. Clearly, she is keenly aware of the terrors of disablism. Simultaneously, Ghai shifts disability studies into an interesting space. As she states in this book ‘my contention is that indeed ‘disability’ as a social category is problematic, though beautiful but extremely complex’. As she writes later in this book ‘my fantasy is that disability is a critical modality which can enlighten the constructed identities in a way that it of course provides possibilities for emancipation of those who are ‘disabled’.
Weaving together personal narratives with academic research, this significant work will interest scholars and students of disability studies, women’s studies, gender studies, psychology, public health, and sociology. It will also appeal to activists and policy-makers concerned with the area.
About the author
Anita Ghai, PhD, is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology,
Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. She is a disability rights
activist in the areas of education, health, sexuality, and gender. She has been a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum Library, Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi, and also the President of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS), New Delhi. She is on the editorial board of Disability and Society, and the Scandinavian Journal of Disability. She has authored two books including (Dis) Embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women (2003) and The Mentally Handicapped: Prediction of the Work Performance ( Co-author Anima Sen).
EXTRACT:Problematising Identity Politics
As an executive member of Indian association of women studies, it took me some time to highlight the issues of disability. However my identity as a president is contingent on the category of ‘woman’ as it is evident that both the women’s movement as well as women studies is about women largely. And yet, speaking for disabled women in this present scenario epitomizes an entirely new challenge for many of us in India. Elsewhere I have written that the goal of universal sisterhood has resulted in homogenising the very clear differences by resorting to certain core themes that are connected to women’s lives. The very instant the category of women is invoked, as a universal constituency an internal questioning begins over the precise content of that term.
Similarly, politics of disability as an identity has invoked many issues for me. However my affiliation with women sometimes puts me in a self-conscious state as my tokenization as a disabled person becomes evident. What is stressful is the part which feels that can I voice people who are also at margins. Can I claim their issues? I cannot help being conscious that I am not them. Few years back I remember linking disability and water issues in Delhi with the belief that valorising only one identity is problematic for me. On one hand hope of collective action has the power to change the scenario in which disabled people live in India. In the chapter ‘At the Periphery’, I have shared the oppressions as well as resistance that disabled people experience in India. Notwithstanding the critical significance of voicing the disability issues, the question which is impending is whether Identity Politics needs to be problematized. Identifying as a woman with visible impairment has been empowering because the only way to comprehend the disability issues can be positioned only as a marginal disabled woman. A celebrated scholar Wendy Brown (1995, pp. 71–72), argues that identity politics becomes ‘invested in its own subjection,’ feasts on ‘political impotence,’ and descends into a melancholy based on a ‘narcissistic wound.’ ‘Politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics; it can holdout no future — for itself or others — that triumphs over this pain’(Brown 1995, 74). While I understand that the politics of resentment is premised on the basis of disabilities, but within the Indian framework, have the disabled got their say in the Indian scenario?
It is true that there is diversity in the disability community and in the name of identity and consequent identification, identity politics demands that ‘WE ALL’ can be together. For me one of the peril of identity politics is its coercive potential of ‘WE ALL’. Sometimes it appears that circumstances have changed in the equality terrain. We recognise that the scenes will be different and it is high time that we take a broader, more included approach to equality. There are many scholars who warn that dependence on identity politics give a free rein to a vicious cycle between the minority and majority communities which do not redress the inequities faced by disabled people.
Scholars who consider themselves as progressive and as a result like to articulate the politics through the untouched label of ‘Indian citizen’, rather than an identity such as ‘woman’ or ‘Muslim’ or disabled or ‘Dalit’ or ‘homosexual’. It does provide rather expedient political strategies for majority elites. How are we going to resolve the differences between the disabled? Though my fantasy is that there would be a close association with other marginalized groups and not establish a single identity group. However is it possible? Given the fact that in the current scenario, the spirit of collectivity is not alive, even if we hope for a powerful collective voice, won’t the state respond? Though the momentum for changes come many of us, who have a much stronger identity, a sense of who we are and our right to rights.
However for those whose voices are not heard, the danger is they become more vulnerable, powerless and weak. Uniting with other disenfranchised groups and individuals will hopefully bring benefits to people who live with multiple markers such as disability, poverty gender and less developed areas. My question is whether a category disability is large enough to hold all the different impairments, both visible and invisible like mental illness. It is in these terms that I am reminded of K. Anthony Appiah who worries about the politics of group identity:
Demanding respect for people as blacks and as gays requires that there are some scripts that go with being an African–American or having same-sex desires. There will be proper ways of being black and gay, there will be expectations to be met, demands to be made (cited in Minow,1997, p. 56).
The very instant the category of disability invoked, as a universal constituency an internal questioning begins over the precise content of that term. The possibility of individual autonomy for a disable person depends on securing respect for those groups. At the same time, as a person my specific autonomy is limited by the scripts the of a group such as Disability Rights Group provide. Such an understanding highlights what Martha Minow (1997) has called the dilemma of difference and what I want to think about in terms of politics of identity of disability. For me the significant question is whether we have been self-critical and sensitive to the realisation that the implied homogeneity of the category of disability was working exactly in the same way as the patriarchal society. Have the disabled people who take pride in being a part of the disability movement, been cautious in identifying the genuineness and authenticity of those who were presumably representing the cause of the other. For instance, many individuals such as the large group of people with mental illness do not get represented adequately in the disability movement. Though we are apparently inclusive in disability rights group for instance, we have very rarely understood the issues of mental illness as well as mental health. We need to understand that it is uncomfortable for many groups as many issues are silenced and invisible. For instance, it is intriguing that in a television reality programme ‘India’s Gottalent’ the organisers have gone against the normative hegemonies and has brought forward many disabled people. In one sense inclusion can be celebrated.
However, the problem comes when the construction of disability is a mix of charity, curiosity and sympathy. As a result the disabled have to voice their concerns by saying that, ‘please consider only my talent and not my disability’.