The disabled need our empathy, not sympathy. They deserve their rights,
Just like everything else in an acquisitive society, the emotions we exhibit are also historically, politically and most importantly, economically defined. That is why it is often argued that pity and charity are emotions which are usually used as tools to maintain the hierarchy of power prevalent in social systems. This practice is probably the wiliest and acutest when a non-disabled person employs sympathy and philanthropy in dealing with a disabled person. Philanthropy becomes the means, mechanism and modus operandi to maintain the social status of the donor. The disabled people’s movement as well as the discipline of disability studies, therefore, has always asserted that it is rights and not charity that the disabled people are asking for in a world circumscribed and demarcated by tenets of normality.
The Politics of ‘Compassion’
Nomenclature is one of the most visible political activities and the attempt by the government to call persons with disabilities as ‘divyang’ is one that wants to use the aforementioned way to maintain the status quo. As I said somewhere earlier, ‘As if compensation for “lesser” ability was not displayed enough by coinages like specially-abled”, the Government of India started pushing for the use of ‘divyang’—one with divine limbs—instead of ‘disabled’ in an attempt to ensure rights and de-stigmatization of the community. However, as an important article published this week suggests, despite having passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and the Prime Minister’s self-proclaimed interest in the community’s concerns, the Budget presented on February 1 allocated only about 0.0039% of the GDP for the sector. One has reasons to conclude that the Prime Minister believes with all seriousness that calling the disabled people divine will end the fierce and sincere battle they have been fighting for decades for their genuine, everyday rights. However, not all is lost as the ‘divyang’ proposal was immediately rejected by the entire community. This confident, collective response by the community reminded me of an old Bill Hughes essay which invokes Nietzche’s critique of Christianity (‘Nothing in our unhealthy modernity is more unhealthy than Christian pity’) in its discussion of compassion and how disabled people and their movements look at it. Nietzche argued that pity has ‘a depressive effect’; it is a ‘life-denying emotion’, a ‘depressive and contagious instinct’ and a ‘multiplier of misery… a conservator of everything miserable’. Hughes looks at slogans from the disabled people’s movements in the United Kingdom and concludes that there is a huge gap and even contestation between the charitable and the rights approach to disability. For an established non-disabled imagination, disability is misfortune, is penance – karma – for an earlier birth, is a spectacle.
Show of pity also sates the sense of superiority held by the non-disabled individuals. That the disabled people ‘look immediately needy’ works in favour of this deep-seated system in quite a few ways. The societal codes at work help the non-disabled people feel grateful about their ‘able-bodiedness’ and in the process, firmly establish the disabled community as the ‘other’ which helps the power relation to exist and operate unhindered. Religion, as discussed above, too teaches how pity is a great thing. So, people who follow a religion and its mores zealously are also more likely to try all the pity in their hearts on disabled persons as, like I said just now, they would strike the majority of people as immediately in need of extra care, compassion and sympathy. For this majority of the able-bodied population, the best possible way to engage with disability is to ‘comfort the doomed in their tragedy’. This everyday commiseration is something that disability studies activists and scholars must continue to fight. Because, in this increasingly pragmatic and utilitarian world, this philanthropic gaze will sustain itself in the revulsion at people for whom the alms are meant, since that is as social position that the philanthropist and the ableist state that represents her will vehemently guard themselves against.
Building Solidarity Across Sections
Running between the two pillars of cure and compensation is the most predictable trajectory that disability narratives take. You either run after (a narrative of) cure, or you compensate the disabled person by bestowing a narrative of hyperability on her. Both ways, your framework remains pity. To cite an example, I often go back home to an Assamese short story called Beethoven. Written by the pre-eminent author Saurabh Kumar Chaliha, the story is a reification of the notion that if Beethoven did not turn deaf, he would probably not be able to make the immortal music that he did.
A negligent body of literature is as guilty of promoting ideology and repression as a crafty state apparatus. The different disability rights movements in the country must be in constant dialogue if not in togetherness, and the field of disability studies must continue to remain interdisciplinary despite and during its consolidation in and outside university spaces all over the globe.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar. The writer is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi