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Invisibility of Disability in Academia

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Summary

My experience of being a person with disability and my interaction  with persons with disability allow me to posit that the absence of the knowledge about the lived experiences of the disabled and the preconceived notions about normalcy allow to attach different social meanings to impaired bodies and these meanings question the knowledge of the disabled .

Full Article

“Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write” (Baynton 30). “The eugenic notions of normativity” (Davis 11), “biological determinism” (Davis 11) and utilitarian notions have led to systematic erasure of the individuality of the disabled in particular and disabled community in general. Our day-today conversations are replete with casual reference to disability metaphors. The remarks such as “have you gone mad?”, “why don’t you turn your blind eye” flow plentifully from our mouth. Popular media keeps disability imagery afloat in order to invoke pity and sympathy. Literary texts devise disability as “narrative prosthesis” (Mitchel and Snyder 224) to reach their resolution. The wheelchair users, blind persons walking with cane, persons in crutches fall upon the sight of the abled individuals without fail. However, the agency of the disabled has never been acknowledged in the histories that we write (Beynton 30). The disabled have been eliminated from the categories of “thinking beings”, as the deviance of their bodies is taken to be the marker of their underdeveloped cognitive capabilities (Ghai 75-91). The eradication of the disabled from epistemological realm is advocated by philosophers and is sustained by various institutions be it religion or science.

 

Even the academic institutions, which are founded on the premise of producing and disseminating knowledge, legitimize their discriminatory attitude, and fail to recognize different ways of learning and knowing of the disabled by producing and reproducing the discourses of normalcy (Ghai 75-91). The present article attempts to bring to the fore the invisibility of disability in academia, the measures  that have been taken to address the issues pertaining to disability  and suggest the measures that can be taken in order to render the academia conducive to academic, social and cultural development of the persons with disability.

 

“State of the Education Report for India: Children with Disability” 2019 (UNESCO) suggests that three-forth of the children with disability at the age of five  years and one-fourth between 5-9 years do not attend school. The report also suggests that the number of dropout students has increased in successive years. As per the survey conducted by NCPEDP (The National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People) (reported in Daily Pioneer), only 0.5 percent of the persons with disability have been enrolled in higher education institutes. It is to be noted that a robust legislative framework has been introduced in order to ensure inclusion and full participation of the persons with disability. Chapter 3 of the RPWD act 2016 has provision for imparting inclusive education to the children with disability. In order to ensure their academic and social development which is consistent with the goal of inclusion, it insists on providing them with opportunities for sports and recreation.  The act lays emphasis on creating buildings and campuses barrier free and accessible to persons with disability in order to achieve their full participation. Thus, social inclusion and inclusive education are enshrined in the acts and policies for persons with disability. Some of the higher education institutes have made attempts to comply with the policies and schemes for the persons with disability and have made the buildings and campuses accessible by building ramps, accessible toilets, procuring assistive devices and so on.   However, as per All India Survey of Higher Education 2015/16 conducted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the enrollment of students with disability in higher education continues to be low as compared to SC, ST and OBC students. It suggests that accessibility is only one of the factors which keeps persons with disability away from academic institutions.  Sankalpa Satapathy in her article “Attitudinal Barriers in Education: Experiences of Women with Disabilities in Odisha” posits that not only disabling physical environments, but  disabling social environments also cause educational exclusion of the disabled people. According to Srilatha Juvva, Professor at Centre for Disability Studies and Actions at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, for inclusion to take place, both physical as well as attitudinal access are required. Apart from persistent gap between policies and their implementation, the institutional reluctance for recognition of the disabled as social, cultural aesthetic and political beings emerges as a huge attitudinal barrier in the way of students with disability.

 

The academia, which has scientific temper and rationality at its core, has failed in assigning agency to the disabled. Instead of encouraging disabled to unleash their curiosity, fostering their inquisitiveness, evolving tools to enhance their learning, allowing them to emerge as knowledge producers, the disabled themselves become the objects of gaze, curiosity and amazement due to their difference (Ghai 78). Due to the absence of level playing ground, the disabled grapple with becoming knower, and end up becoming the objects of knowing.

 

I, being a person with vision impairment, had not fully grasped my bodily deviance, until I was left bewildered, clueless and embarrassed, when I heard some giggles and laughter when I went close to the blackboard to identify white letters written on it with my residual vision. Despite my blindness, I was admitted in a regular school. I have used the word “despite” with a purpose, as my observations suggest that admitting students with special needs in special schools has been the norm. This very norm has fostered the strategic ignorance of the “abled bodies about the disabled. This particular incident forced me to take my difference as defects, and the urge forgetting it repaired grew stronger and stronger. I wanted to be the part of the rest of the group and hence, I began efforts to pass as abled. These efforts kept me away from articulating my needs, difficulties I faced in adapting to the curriculum which could not accommodate my ways of learning and perceiving. Participating in co-curricular activities remained a far cry. Mass-drill classes used to bring spells of anxiety, as my drills hardly match with the group, and my drills were reduced to center of attraction for others and embarrassment for me. These unsuccessful efforts of passing as abled relegated me to social isolation. The futile hours spent in the school had to be compensated at home and family members engaged themselves in giving lessons.

 

Most of the academic institutions hold a view that admitting students to the colleges and universities ensures inclusive education (Ghai 80). However, they do not fully grasp the challenges posed by societal attitude. The disabled students encounter new sets of challenges while transitioning from schools to colleges and universities, as they are away from home or rehabilitation centers. They have to grapple with numerous challenges, from meeting expenses of assistive devices, finding accessible accommodation, getting access to information in suitable mode to socializing with other students. It becomes all the more challenging for students sharing other marginal identities such as caste, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Social isolation emerges as a huge attitudinal barrier in the way of acquisition of the knowledge and academic performance. The ignorance and curious gaze of the so called abled in universities and colleges result into exoticising of the disabled and the disabled are plunged into social exile. The disabled end up answering or responding to the questions loaded with stereotypes, flurry of shock and amazement. Due to the absence of accessible buildings, laboratories, libraries, toilets, canteens, hostels, transport, the disabled students have to be confined to limited space. Their time and energy are spent in working out the ways for overcoming the barriers either by pleading, taking endless rounds of the offices or by taking favors of the abled bodies. Their academic achievements cannot be at par with their abled counterparts, as time continues to be the criterion of assessing academic excellence. Moreover, to prove their academic excellence, the disabled have to run on the track which is designed as per the needs of majoritarian abled bodies, as academic institutions do not hold Paralympics.

 

Ignorance and silence continue to exist when it comes to disabled employees engaged in academia. The invisibility of disability prevails at administration and academic level in most of the academic institutions. Apart from physical barriers such as inaccessible infrastructure, inaccessible modes of communication, the disabled employees encounter attitudinal barrier and are subjected to social isolation. My experience of being a person with disability and my interaction  with persons with disability allow me to posit that the absence of the knowledge about the lived experiences of the disabled and the preconceived notions about normalcy allow to attach different social meanings to impaired bodies and these meanings question the knowledge of the disabled . Hence, the contribution made by the disabled people is hardly recognized by the institutions. The lack of willingness to accord equal status to disabled academicians pervades in academia too and hence, the disabled are ignored sidelined and are rendered invisible in decision making. As professor Anita Ghai observes: “the academia at large usually knows very little, if anything, about knowledge of disability, preserving discrimination against disability (80).” In her view, the equal opportunity cells in the universities engage with concessional issues (81). However, disability as knowledge system is not yet a part of academia. Moreover, it has been observed by the disability studies scholars that the interdisciplinary courses that are offered in humanities and social sciences do not account disability studies as an integral component. In their view, the courses that are exclusively designed to engage with the experiences of the marginal identities, do not acknowledge disabled as having shared identity in culture, politics, economics and so on (Ghai 75-91).

 

Conferences, workshops, seminars play a vital role in enhancing one’s skills, enriching knowledge and networking. However, they remain difficult terrains to travel for the disabled. The disabled participants grapple with numerous hurdles ranging from inaccessible venue, inaccessible transportation, and the absence of human assistance to exhausting schedules of various academic programmes, socializing over lunch and dinner and so on. As a result, the academicians with disability prefer to avoid attending various academic meets, which subsequently hampers their academic growth and their academic profile in the larger context.

 

The world at present is teetering because of the invasion of unanticipated dreadful disease Covid19 in all walks of life. The current pandemic has confiscated personal, political, social space of all individuals and has rendered every individual economically, socially and culturally disabled. The work from home is no more a perk; rather it has become the norm. Various institutions are working hard in order to reduce disability by catering to the needs of their employees in order to keep disruptions and disturbance at bay. Incessant training sessions are being conducted on the usage of various applications on different online platforms. However, the disabled students and employees as usual are abandoned in this wonderland, and they have been knocking the doors of NGOs and civil societies. Their very right to education is at stake. The issues pertaining to accessible reading material, the availability of assistive devices and human assistance, accessible websites and applications are not paid adequate heed. These disabling circumstances and the absence of adequate support and guidance have aggravated the disability of the persons with disability.

 

Susan Wendell is of the view that disability is relative to person’s social, cultural and physical environment (37). In her view, a great deal of disability can be reduced by doing away with the preconceived notion that “everyone is healthy, non-disabled, young but adult (37).” The need of the hour is to bring about the change in familial and societal attitude towards disabled and academia can contribute to serving the cause. The academia should encourage disability studies to emerge as an academic discipline, as it can help, in Professor Anita Ghai’s words, create a body of knowledge to make us reflect about the experiences of the disabled. Moreover, the academic institutions by collaborating with various government and non-government organizations can organize various sensitizing programmes to promote accessibility, spread awareness about the challenges faced by the persons with disability and to promote tolerance for difference. Moreover, strengthening of database through research can contribute to filling up the gap between existing policies and their implementation. It can also provide useful insights on charting out effective plans for achieving inclusion. The academic institutions can provide mentorship to persons with disability to identify their individual needs such as dealing with the stigma attached to disability, having suitable modes of communication, modes of transport, access to information, suitable curriculum and so on, thereby improve their academic performance. The institutions can also strive for helping persons with disability with networking and socializing by holding cultural events, get-togethers and so on. Networking helps not only in improving inter-personal relationships but inculcates a sense of belonging among persons with disability. Moreover, visual representation in form of sculptures, graffiti, posters and paintings can also contribute to increasing the visibility of the persons with disability.

 

To sum up, it is high time to recognize disabled as social, cultural, political, economic and aesthetic beings. It is to be noted that socially and culturally constructed disability relegates the persons with disability to social isolation and creates a vicious cycle of irresolvable challenges. Further, disability is not a homogeneous category. If disability is coupled with other marginal identities such as caste, gender, race, sexual orientation and religion, it poses complex sets of challenges, and addressing them asks for more nuanced approaches and analysis to study disability.

 

References:

Baynton, Douglas. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” (17-33). Disability Studies Reader. Taylor Francis Group New York And London, 2013. Print.

Davis, Lennard. “Disability, Normality and Power” (1-17).  Disability Studies Reader. Taylor Francis Group New York And London, 2013. Print.

Ghai, Anita. “Ignorance of Disability: some Epistemological  Questions” (75-91). Disability Studies in India an Interdisciplinary Perspectives Springer Singapore, 2020. .  Print.

Mitchel, David and Sharon Snyder. “Narrative Prosthesis” (222-235). Disability Studies Reader. Taylor Francis Group New York And London, 2013. Print.

Satapathy, Sankalpa. “Attitudinal Barriers in Education Experiences of Women with Disabilities in Odisha” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 55, Issue No. 32-33, 08 Aug, 2020

Wendell, Susan. Rejected bodies: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996. Printt.

 

 Zarana Maheshwari is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, Central University of Gujarat (Gandhinagar). Views expressed are personal.

 

This article is part of a Confluence Series called “Under-represented groups in academia: issues and way forward”. The remaining articles can be found here

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Dr. Ratan Sarkar

Excellent