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Women, Disbability and Human Rights - I

by Yogesh Gupta and Savita Pande

What is disability?

We bring to you this article - the first of a three part series - contributed by, Yogesh Gupta and Savita Pande, who have painstakingly described the definitions of disability and the rights of the disabled and the state of disabled women.

For a disabled child, the struggle of life begins, for discrimination encounters him as he opens his eyes in this world. Disability is a natural phenomenon that occurs in every society and every generation. It may result from pre-natal factors, birth injuries, diseases or stress. The intensity of the struggle depends on which part of the world the child opens his eyes, and, to what gender he or she belongs. It is hardly worth repeating that the things are less tough in the developed world and for him than her. This paper forms an overview of disability as an issue and how it is different for women than men.

What is Disability? Who is a disabled? Over a period of time these have become technical questions. As far as human rights are concerned no technical explanation is required. Human rights deal with minimum standard of life of an individual. Human rights and fundamental rights therefore cannot be studied differently. Both human rights and fundamental rights do not discriminate people on the basis of their caste, creed, sex, religion and disability.

The World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons summarises a great number of different functional limitations occurring in any country of the world. People may be disabled by physical, intellectual or sensory impairment, medical conditions or mental illness. Such impairments, conditions or illnesses may be permanent or transitory in nature.

It is differentiated from the term handicap, which means the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the community on an equal level with others.  It describes the encounter between the person with a disability and the environment. The purpose of this term is to focus on the shortcomings in the environment and in many organised activities of the society, for example, information, communication and education, which prevent persons with disabilities form participating on equal terms. 

The terminology itself is not without dispute. According to the international encyclopaedia of women “the Terminology or the language used to describe –Disability — has been a topic of much discussion both within and outside the disabled community. Phrases such as “handicapped”, "crippled", "wheelchair bound", "feeble minded" and "imbecile" have been rejected by many as loaded, stereotyped, and negative”.  It says the positive descriptions put forward by some include words like "Physically challenged”, “differently abled”, as alternatives. Generally, disability–rights activists favour language that is straightforward and accurate—“people with disabilities” or “people with intellectual disabilities”.

In 1980, the World Health Organization adopted an international classification of impairments, disabilities and handicaps, which suggested a more precise and at the same time relativistic approach. The international classification of impairments, disabilities and Handicaps makes a clear distinction between “, “disability” and “handicap”.  It has been extensively used in areas such as rehabilitation, education statistics, policy, legislation, demography, sociology, economics and anthropology.

It has been stated that “During the 70s there was a strong reaction among representatives of organisations of persons with disabilities and professionals in the field of disability against the terminology in use during those times. The term 'disability' and 'handicap'  were often used in an unclear and confusing way, which gave poor guidance for policy making and for political action. The terminology reflected a medical and diagnostic approach, which ignored the imperfections and deficiencies of the surrounding society”.

In the opinion of the authors of this paper, the differences over definition is a matter of semantics. It is important that the mindset of people towards the disabled should change. More than the terminology it is important that the attitude of the society —parents, friends, colleagues—should change. Once the attitudinal changes come, the definitional problems will become marginal. The authors make a strong appeal not look at disabled people as people in need of sympathy but as people in need of understanding and material support. The definitional arguments are marginal to the desirability of attitudinal shifts.

Read the second part of this article Women, Disability and Human Rights - II .

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