Breaking the Stereotypes: Panel Discussion on Physical Disabilities

The second day of the Mental Health Awareness Week (18th October) saw the Psychology Department organising a panel discussion on physical disabilities, called “Breaking the Stereotypes”. 
Students trickled in the lab as their classes ended, and the event finally began at 4:30. It was kicked off by the General Secretary of our department, who opened with descriptions of our panellists and their impressive achievements: Shivangi Anil, a recent graduate from LSR and former coordinator of REACH; Prabh Simran, who had scored a 100% in music in class XII and was now pursuing B. A. Hons in Hindi from Ramjas; Suman, a state level javelin player and a national level relay racer;  Aarti Dubey, a prize-winning poet; and Aparna Sachdev, a CBSE topper studying English Hons at LSR.

Our moderator for the event, Dr Anita Ghai, was then introduced. Formerly an associate professor of psychology at Jesus and Mary College, and now a professor at Ambedkar University, Dr Ghai has been an “illustrious academician, untiring activist, and resilient survivor of multiple physical challenges.” She was greeted with enthusiastic applause and warm smiles, and the mic was then handed over to the panellists.

Shivangi opened with a dose of humour (“Thank you for that overly glorified description,” she said, and chuckled along with the rest of us), immediately following it up with a hard-hitting thought—her introduction had not begun with her disability. She has cerebral palsy, but that does not define her, and it is not the first thing to be introduced about her. 

She then shared instances from throughout her life where people addressed the people she was with rather than speaking to her directly—something which many of the panellists seemed to relate to, and reiterated when they shared their own stories.

“Talk to us,” Shivangi implored.

“It is me who has to answer, not them,” laughed Aparna.

Communication and awareness is key, Aparna said; people might be too awkward or too prejudiced to speak to those with disabilities head-on—and too oblivious to the fact that they’re doing it, which only makes interactions like this panel discussion all the more important.

“Disabled kaun hai, aur usse disabled kaun banata hai?”

Who is “disabled”, and what makes him “disabled”? Suman, the third panellist, opened with these words, the sentiments of which were strongly echoed by Prabh and Aarti. There is no clear-cut definition of “disabled”; they themselves didn’t think they were “disabled”, but other people insisted on slapping that label on them. Aarti also recited a self-composed poem along these thoughts.

We don’t need your pity, they said; we are not lesser than you. We will push ourselves further than everyone else, and then turn around and challenge the doubters.

Dr Ghai stepped in to offer a few alternate perspectives when the panellists were finished, particularly on the “disabled vs differently abled” debate. While quite a few panellists spoke out against using the word “disabled” because of the inferior or “lacking” connotation it held, instead preferring the term “differently abled”. In contrast, Dr Ghai pointed out the inherent condescension of using terms like “differently abled” or “specially abled”. She related it to the dubious definition of “normal”; in her words—we look at someone whom we perceive as “normal” and then call him “able”, we then call those different from this norm to be “differently” abled. Dr Ghai talked about heterogeneity in disabilities and within the disabled/differently abled community as well, and nothing showcased it better than the diversity in views on the panel alone.

Dr Ghai also drew attention to various other issues, like disabilities in rural areas, in those without education, those with invisible disabilities, marginalisation from power structures, and how the state ought to be duty-bound to respond to them.

 By the time the speakers had finished, the session had already overshot its scheduled time somewhat. When the floor was opened for questions, the present REACH coordinator asked a (fairly long-winded) question, and shared her own experiences. That, coupled with the detailed answer given, caused the session to stretch close to 6:00 pm before it was wrapped up, so Dr Ghai gave out her mobile number and urged people to contact her if they had any doubts. Parul ma’am also spoke briefly but passionately about the term “TABs” (Temporarily Abled Bodies); it was the most animated I have ever seen her.

All the experiences and thoughts that they shared brought several issues, and the varied perspectives on those issues, into focus. Most importantly, I think, the talk helped shed light on all the subtle discrimination and stereotyping which we may not even realise is happening, and may actually be partaking in without noticing. 

Some of the points they raised showed a perspective that would have never occurred to many of us otherwise, but seems so glaringly obvious in hindsight that you’d wonder how you had ever missed it. (Shivangi’s story of how people generally don’t expect fashion from disabled people comes to mind, or Dr Ghai’s lament about finding it difficult to see movies in theatre in a wheelchair.) 

In that respect, I think the talk was a huge leap forward in the understanding of physical disabilities for all of us. Every panellist thanked us after they spoke, and some even before—but the pleasure was entirely ours!
Tarang Kaur


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