Yogi Adityanath
File photo of Yogi Adityanath | Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Has the re-christening of people with disability as ‘divyang’ helped people with disabilities and how they are treated and perceived in India?

On the eve of the Uttar Pradesh Investors Summit, CM Yogi Adityanath spoke on a wide variety of issues ranging from the growth of the state to his government’s priorities.

On being asked about the modernisation of UP under his regime, Yogi said, “Hum UP ko divyang nahi banne denge (We will not allow UP to become disabled). Sabka vikas karenge (We will work for the development of all) but there will be no appeasement.”

Originally meaning divine, the term ‘Divyang’ was coined as an alternate term for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio address on 27 December 2015. The change of name was meant to convey that members of the disability community have achieved a lot and are invested with special, divine powers. I am not sure I have any special powers but whatever I’ve achieved is because of my hard work. Besides, I’m not sure if the divine can sip wine and visit pubs.

But a little over two years later, it is time to ask: Has the ‘divyang’ re-christening helped people with disability and how they are treated and perceived?

The answer to that question lies in the fact that one of the most powerful chief ministers of the nation uses it as a verb to describe failure and under-performance in his state.

This clearly demonstrates that the vocabulary may have changed, but the society still stigmatises Persons with Disabilities. Is the CM Adityanath even on-board with the Hon’ble PM’s government’s efforts? Does he understand why the PM coined the term ‘divyang‘? Since it’s a first, I would like to believe it’s a slip of the tongue and give him the benefit of the doubt.

Since coming to power, the central government under Modi has shown genuine resolve to work towards the upliftment of Persons with Disabilities. Two national-level campaigns have been launched to enhance the lives of PwDs– the Accessible India and the Inclusive India Campaigns. We have seen the passage of new laws– the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and the Mental Health law. No law is perfect, but they are a big step forward in empowering Persons with Disabilities.

But the new nomenclature was not welcomed by everybody in the disability sector. In an acutely inaccessible nation, mere change of name appeared patronising and divorced from the currents in the disability sector worldwide. A more nuanced assessment is that PM Modi perhaps thought that Persons with Disabilities are often looked at as ‘inauspicious’ or a result of ‘bad karma’ in their past lives. The central government would have believed that they would nip this issue in the bud by coining the term ‘divyang’.

But this term (like any other euphemism on disability) belittles PwDs by shifting the focus away from the person and away from the state’s responsibility to provide accessible physical, social and economic infrastructure.

According to the Oxford dictionary, disability is defined as ‘a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities’. Using a people’s first approach, the United Nations uses the phrase ‘Persons with Disabilities’– (different from ‘disabled people’) while referring to persons from this community.

The world over, there have been many words that have been used at various times in various countries to replace ‘disability’. Each one was introduced to remove stigmas and stereotypes that exist in our society. Working in the sector, I have come across a wide variety of such terms including ‘differently-abled’ (isn’t everyone in the world differently-abled with their passions, interest and talents?), ‘specially abled’ (are we super heroes from a Marvel comic?), ‘handicap’ (are we talking of golf?) and even just ‘challenged’ (thank you, but no thank you).

But it is clear that PM Modi’s own colleagues are not sensitised on how to use the ‘divyang‘ terminology. CM Adityanath’s unintentional usage in the context of an under-performing and backward state has reinforced the very stigma and stereotype it was created to prevent.

Do these labels help? I have come across PwDs who are obsessed by one or the other of these labels. Others believe that labels are euphemisms that divert from the real issue at hand. And that I think is the real beauty of it all – each person with a disability is a separate individual with his or her own beliefs.

This would be a good time to remember Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution who on 22 January 1938, protesting the use of the word ‘harijan’ (meaning ‘children of god’) for the Scheduled Castes, walked out of the Bombay Legislature saying “I must say that the name ‘harijan‘ has now become practically equivalent to the term ‘asprishya‘ (meaning not-to-be-touched); beyond that there is nothing remaining in that name.”

Nipun Malhotra is a disability rights activist. His twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra

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