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'Disability is as much a social construct as gender'

Jun 03, 2009

India’s women’s movement has failed to recognise the experiences of disabled women in a sexist and able society. Any feminist discourse must include their concerns to resist hegemony, argues Anita Ghai, psychologist and women’s right activist.

In the last decade, disabled people in India have made relentless efforts to push through disability legislation, get included in the census and make representations to the media, among other things.

Even though the legislative framework is not as strong as it should be, it is only when the laws are stipulated, that space is provided for the disabled to participate in the wider society.

Disability in the Indian context is often understood as a ‘lack’ or ‘deficit’ as well as a ‘difference’. Very few people accept the fact that disability is as much a social construct as, say, gender.

The resulting social and cultural apartheid is sustained by the existence of a built environment that lacks amenities for the disabled and caters solely to the needs of the more complete and able-bodied ‘other’.

To survive as a disabled person in such a blinkered social environment has meant coming to terms with unequal power relationships. This is reflected most clearly in the absence and invisibility of the disabled in forward-looking social movements and dialogues in India, including the women's movement.

For women with disability, social experiences are much more limited; it is difficult for them to grasp that the personal is political.

In the Indian context the bias is reflected in the primary questions raised by the disability movement in the past decade. The concerns are related to issues such as employment, inclusion in the census, implementation of the disability legislation and, more recently, accessibility to the built environment.

Better dead than alive

The disability movement in India has not fought a single battle, which has focused on feminine concerns such as reproductive health and the violation of the basic rights of disabled women.

Disabled women are simply not regarded as women – they are encouraged to be childlike and apologetic towards able-bodied society, which judges them as being better dead than alive.

While some individual women may have benefited from the efforts of various women's groups, the issue has never received any focused attention. Though feminist voices have always questioned patriarchal oppression, this has not extended to disabled women, who should be a natural ally.

Feminists have failed to recognise the different experiences of disabled women in a sexist and able society. This neglect has been felt acutely in western societies too, though there, feminists who have either become disabled as a result of a chronic illness, or acquired disabilities at a young age, did take up this issue.

In India, though, the feminist discourse continues to exclude the concerns of disabled women. It is true, though, that disabled women in general do not have to deal with the same oppressions that non-disabled women have to deal with, primarily because disabled women are not seen as women in an able-bodied society.

While it is true that the specific issues for women with disabilities may vary from those of non-disabled women, the reality of womanhood, which includes the usual experiences and fears of a patriarchal society, are bound to be similar. However, with a body that does not ‘measure up’ to society’s norms, the situation becomes precariously unbalanced.

Patronising tokenism

In the Indian scenario, calls to integrate the disabled into the feminist movement were often met by a patronising tokenism, which argued that though exclusion of disability was real, the system was helpless to challenge the perfectionist norms of a biased society.

For Indian feminists, disability continues to be synonymous with the identity of being a woman, such that its specific character does not receive its due and is lost in the concern or lack of concern for women’s rights in general.

Feminists’ concern is limited and myopic, which results in paying only lip service to the demands made for inclusion. Consequently, an engagement with the issues of disability is more rhetoric than meaningful inclusion.

However, over the past ten years, issues concerning disabled women have been highlighted within the realm of the women's movement. There have been some gains and we need to reflect on these.

In May 2005, the Indian Association for Women’s Studies’ national conference in Goa was on the subject ‘Citizenship, Sovereignty and Gender’.

The conference is held once every three years, but that year it was an historic event because for the first time it included a symposium on issues of disabled.

In another conference in Mumbai where disabled women were present in large numbers, many workshops were held in locations that were unreachable, with no elevator access. Inclusion surely means more than just making nominal arrangements for those of us living on the periphery.

Welcome starting point

The 2008 Women’s Studies conference went a step further and discussed disability issues in a plenary, but still there were only two women delegates who were disabled among almost 500 women.

Thus, while the feminists’ fight against oppression in India is for recognising disability issues, it is not yet fully cognisant of them. For the first time, the mainstream Journal of Gender Studies brought out a special issue on Disability, Gender and Society [May/ August 2008, Volume 15, No 2, published by Sage]. Though a lot more work needs to be done, this is a welcome starting point.

To really hear disabled women’s voices, the women’s movement has to acknowledge the social, economic, communication as well as architectural barriers that prevent disabled women from sharing their stories and engaging in a public discourse.

It’s time that the women’s movement interrogates able-ism. For example, for women who are hearing impaired or visually impaired, accessibility may mean using sign language or Braille format.

Able-ism is also reflected in the kind of language that non-disabled feminists use when referring to feminists with disabilities, as for example, “you are so brave” or “it’s really wonderful that you were able to get out and come to this conference.”

In the West

The feminist discourse in the West attempted to connect disability theory and feminism by arguing that disabled women must deal with the two-fold but separate oppressions, of being a woman in a sexist society and being disabled in an able society.

Once each of these oppressions has been charted out, one can then ‘add’ the two together to understand disabled women’s oppression. In other words, a disabled woman faces dual oppressions, one on the level of ‘disability’, and the other on the level of ‘gender’.

Both the identities are similar in that they are both social constructions derived from two biological facts – one of impairment, the other of sex.

Neither impairment nor sex is challenging or difficult, that is, they become a problem only when placed in a social context that constructs them as flaws. So, if the reality of disabled women’s lives is to be comprehended, the negativity associated with both sex and impairment needs to be recognised.

Double disadvantage

Many feminist thinkers in the field of disability have objected to this ‘double disadvantage’, as such writings, they believe, do not empower.

We, disabled women, need to find a way to make our experiences noticeable and shared in a way that draws attention to our concerns but not at the cost of undermining our self-esteem.

An ‘additive’ framework in which the attempt is to understand separate oppressions and then add them back together as if that would explain the whole experience marks this kind of thinking. Implicit in this assumption is that gender, disability, impairment and sex are binaries.

As a result, disabled women are theorised about by adding the two ‘biological foundations’ of sex and impairment to conclude that disabled women are oppressed along the twin axes of gender and disability.

As feminists we need to underscore the fact that interdependence is key both for non-disabled and disabled women. An interrogation of the notion of perfection is critical.

Disability both for men and women in India is not a singular marker; there are other markers of difference and inequality such as poverty, caste, class and religion. Even though universal sisterhood is problematic, feminism still has the potential to align itself with the disability movement in order to resist the hegemonic discourse.

Source : Infochange
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