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PM Modi joked about dyslexia and set back the disabled community by decades

PM Modi needs to apologise. Surely a well-travelled leader like him knows being disabled in India is a lifelong punishment.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently mocked students with dyslexia to score a political brownie point at a hackathon event organised by IIT-Roorkee. Under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which ironically was passed in the Modi government’s tenure, discrimination and humiliation of a person with disability in public is a serious offence. As a leader who enjoys huge global following, Narendra Modi must know better than to make a joke at the expense of 70 million disabled people in the country. The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled has demanded an apology from him.

Modi has undoubtedly travelled a lot, surely he can see that being disabled in India is a lifelong punishment.

One of the reasons why a lot of students with disabilities drop out early from school in India is because of the lack of peer sensitisation, which results in mockery and bullying. This in turn leads to disabled adults who hesitate to participate actively in society. PM Modi’s joke and the laughs he received only reaffirms this. Comments like these push us back decades when we were the subject of charity and not equal citizens.

Also read: Supreme Court has let down India’s disability rights movement

In a country where people with disabilities continue to be an invisible minority, and people with disabilities have rarely contested elections, Modi should know that even accessing polling booths with dignity remains a challenge. Something to think about as he campaigns for the Lok Sabha elections.

Way back in 2004, my predecessor and the first director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, Javed Abidi, initiated a campaign to make elections accessible. He passed away exactly a year ago. When the Election Commission didn’t budge, Abidi started a fast unto death to further his cause for accessible polling stations. The EC finally provided wooden ramps and Braille labels to indicate the name and number of the candidates at all polling booths.

Incremental changes have happened since then, but the announcements and promises have outpaced their implementation. For instance, in June 2018, the Election Commission had suggested alternative voting methods for disabled people, including early voting, voting from home, postal vote, transport assistance and mobile polling stations. I am yet to see these materialise.

Ignorance about disability is not new in India. I have faced abuse and have been called a ‘Pakistani’ for not standing when the national anthem was played at a movie theatre. This despite the fact that fellow viewers were aware of my disability because I was in a wheelchair.

Disability has always had a negative connotation. Politicians use it to mock their opponents and to reflect incompetence of some kind. In films, disability is either used for laughs or as tear-jerkers.

We are a country where persons with visual impairment can’t become judges and persons with dyslexia fall under the ‘not recommended’ category in the MBBS disability quota. A majority of us don’t have access to quality education and can’t exercise our right to vote.

Also read: Indian Army chief should know that no one feigns disability

All of this points to a lack of political will and a lack of awareness. There is a pressing need to make the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act implemented in true letter and spirit so that it reaches every last person with a disability in the remotest part of our country. And who better than the prime minister to champion the removal of barriers for persons with disabilities and empower the community.

More than 70 per cent of persons with disabilities are out of India’s labour force. The dropout rate of children with disabilities at the primary class level is five times higher than other children. So, when the leader of my nation uses disability as a way to express his ‘mann ki baat’ in front of the youth of India, who in turn laugh and applaud him, it disheartens the entire community.  It reaffirms the belief that we are still treated as second class citizens.

Also read: Women with disability face higher risk of sexual violence & lower access to justice in India

I would encourage PM Modi to take strong steps and include us in the national dialogue. We desperately need to make the country disabled-friendly and make it impossible for anyone to ignore disability.

The efforts of all political parties ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be closely watched by the disability sector, for every word they say and every promise they make.

As the world’s single largest minority, we deserve better. And PM Modi, let’s start closer to home.

Arman Ali is the Executive Director, National Centre for the Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP).

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  1. Agree with Sanjiv and Nagarajan.
    Arman bhai appears to hv taken Modi’s words directed at him and his brethren.My child is also one of them.
    In social dialogue this is sarcasm, with sole purpose bieng scoring points in politics, just like CHOR.
    No chor has complained on this ground!!!!¹
    With Modiji’s spiritual, moral
    and overall personality,exhibited in his day to day public life,the views expressed by Arman bhai, on Modiji’s utterances,appears to be seen in different perspective than what it meant and conveyed to mass.
    Wisdom and happiness lie in reading the proper and appropriate meaning with positive emphasis and percecpion or else life would be less enjoyable and more moronic
    I say this in the backdrop of fact that my dearest child is also with dyslexia syndrome
    Jai hind

  2. The problem is one elderly in TV interaction there was too much is taken from his joke. Even joke should not others whether abled or challenged. If PM can say this, no wonder his supporters have targeted Arun Shourie and his son as with comment it is curse because he was critical of Modi. A PM is supposed to set good examples for others to follow but it seems to be doing otherwise. India has seen many PM’s from different parties including one from his own party, but none have used some ones inability to mock his OPPONENTS. He is not BJP’s PM but great Bharat, he ows an apology.

  3. Arman Ali sir, I would beg to differ with you on this. A bit of humor should be allowed! I criticize Mr Modi all the time, but on this one I’m with him. You would notice that he said that bit with a mischievous guffaw and not with a malicious straight face — WHICH would have been unforgivable for being rude and crude. By his laughter he made it amply clear that he was pulling the leg of his bete noire, Rahul Gandhi.

  4. Fully agree. It was crude, petty and opportunistic. I was in fact shocked. He must apologize. But I have never seen him apologizing for his similar utterances- like the one about late wife of a Congress leader.

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