Whose disability is it anyway?
Imagine the horrifying image of a mother throwing out her <g data-gr-id="84">new born</g> child out of her home. At the heart of the foundational myths of Greek civilisation, there lies one such myth. The “ugly and shriveled of foot” Hephaestus was thrown out of Olympus by his mother Hera simply because he was born physically deformed. For the most part, myths condition the collective consciousness of a civilisation and define how it views and perceives disability. Predictably in Sparta, a state in ancient Greece, children born with disabilities were discarded at the time of their birth. Whether in myths or in real life, this stigmatised section of society has always been discriminated against, across cultures. Evidence of such an attitude towards those with disabilities is also to be found in the Zend Avesta, the sacred scripture of the Zoroastrians.
This religious text visualises a “perfect world” in which “there shall be no humpbacked, none bulged forward there; no impotent, no lunatic… no leprous to be confined, nor any of the brands wherewith Angra Mainyu stamps the bodies of mortals.” Accordingly, it was a common practice among the Zoroastrians in the ancient times to seclude and segregate people with serious diseases, particularly the lepers in what they called the armest-gah. The elderly and infirm were similarly forsaken or disposed off. Even those men who were seriously injured or disabled in <g data-gr-id="78">war</g> were abandoned in a desolate, open place to fend for themselves against wild animals. If they did survive the ordeal, they were shunned and ostracised by society until they underwent an exorcism ceremony.
Similar troubling evocations of disability are also present in Hindu mythology. The disturbing tale of the marriage of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi in the <g data-gr-id="82">Uttarkanda</g> section of the Padma Purana is a case in point. According to this legend, when Vishnu asked Lakshmi to marry him, she initially refused as <g data-gr-id="67">her</g> physically deformed elder sister, known variously as <g data-gr-id="83">Alakshmi</g>, Jyestha, or Nirrti, was still unmarried. She requested Vishnu to marry her elder sister first so that she could marry him afterwards. Vishnu frowned at this proposal and informed her that he could not do so as there was no place for the physically deformed in the Vaikuntha. What is discernible in this instance is something quite frightening: a sacred text’s marginalisation of persons with disability in the conception of its ideal dwelling, highlighting the dynamics of exclusion inherent in the myth-making project of an able-bodied self.
Such processes of exclusion, however, are not just confined to ancient myths and mythology. They are very much part of the lived reality of contemporary society. Not long ago, the newspapers carried the story of Nipun Malhotra, a disability-rights activist and founder of the <g data-gr-id="73">Nipman</g> Foundation, who was denied entry into a posh South Delhi restaurant for being in a wheelchair. He was informed that it was part of the restaurant’s policy to not allow disabled guests inside. Even in the so-called advanced and liberal first world, the situation is no different. Just this year, Robert Vanderhorst, his wife Joan, and their 16-year-old son Bede, who suffers from down syndrome, were not allowed to board an American Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles. The airline personnel at the gate told the shocked parents that the son could not be given entry as he was a potential threat to the safety of other passengers and was therefore considered to be a “security risk.”
Discrimination against those with disabilities is also a matter of routine in the UK as well. Claire Walker was not allowed to board a public bus with her <g data-gr-id="60">three-year old</g> son, Brayden, who because of a developmental delay is unable to walk without a wheelchair. The mother was told that the bus could not accommodate her son along with the wheelchair.
Disability, then, is not a medically diagnosed problem of the human body gone wrong. People are disabled not because their so-called ‘deviant’ bodies give them trouble. They are disabled because the able-bodied world uses their impaired bodies to marginalise them from the making of the social, cultural, and political world in which we all live. This is a serious human rights issue, the roots of which are to be traced to our myths and legends which continue to condition our attitude towards the phenomenon.
Denial of the rights of the disabled is integral to our mythological tales. In the Mahabharata, Dhritashtra, though the eldest son in the royal family, is deprived of his legitimate claim to be king of Hastinapur after the death of his father, simply because he is blind from birth. His younger brother, Pandu, is coronated in his place. However, ironically after Pandu’s untimely death, Dhritarashtra’s impairment apparently ceases to matter as he is installed as a kind of caretaker-monarch until the sons of Pandu are old enough to rule the kingdom. There is obviously more to the family politics of the Kuru clan than meets the “eye.” Dhritarashtra’s coronation, in a sense, is merely a means for the political rehabilitation of Pandu’s able-bodied children. In India today, the appropriation of disability committees for the political rehabilitation of ruling-party members is quite common. Recently in Odisha, <g data-gr-id="81">Minati</g> Behera, the state vice-president of the women’s wing of the party in power, BJD, was appointed State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities despite having no experience in matters related to disability.
While the disabled community is being often used by national and local leaders to gain political mileage, the society at large, particularly the government, tends to reveal an astonishing apathy to the cause of this community. Despite a Supreme Court order directing state and central governments to provide three per cent reservation in jobs for the disabled, no such special recruitment drive has taken place and over 3,500 jobs in the central government reserved for those with disabilities still lay vacant. Understandably, on April 16, disability rights activists took to the streets at Jantar Mantar to demand the expedient implementation of the court orders, and the immediate filling up of vacancies.
It is high time that mythologies across the globe should be critically reexamined and reinterpreted and the persons with disabilities accommodated and given their rightful place in society as its equal member. The ideal liberal world of today should be one in which disability is accommodated as just one of the many human diversities.
The author is Associate Professor, Department of English, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.