There has been a lot of noise around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s insensitive remarks about dyslexia during an interaction with students. This lack of judgement rightfully deserves our condemnation. However, the discourse triggered by this unfortunate incident reflects an underlying stereotype and prejudice that we all seemed to have overlooked.
From journalists to disability rights experts, the reaction to the prime minister’s remarks was to produce a long list of famous people who had dyslexia or some other learning disability. This list went from Akbar to Albert Einstein. In this midst of this, we forgot to ask ourselves: why is it that every time a derogatory statement is made about disability, we feel the need to dig out a list of achievers with disabilities? Do people with disabilities without such lofty credentials not deserve the same respect and dignity?
Disability is a spectrum and like the rest of humanity, not all people with disabilities will be super-achievers. Disability affects 15% of a country’s population. By that measure, India is home to around 100 million people with disabilities. Of this, the vast majority may not end up on some list of famous personalities.
As a society, it has been an uphill journey accepting disability as a ‘normal’ phenomenon. We may have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and enacted the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 to harmonise the convention, but inherently, our attitude towards disability continues to be one of charity and pity.
If we look at dyslexia, the most common reference we hear about it is invariably the film Taare Zameen Par. Granted that this film was perhaps monumental in creating awareness about this particular disability, it still rested on the premise that the protagonist had ‘hidden potential’. Many experts working in the area of learning disability will concede that most people with such disabilities are visual learners; but no, not all of them will have a hidden potential to be an artist.
This quest to unearth some extraordinary talent within people with learning disabilities – and all people with disabilities, for that matter – could have been wished away as a good intention. But a close analysis of our policies and programmes towards the inclusion of children with disabilities in schools, and people with disabilities in the mainstream in general, will reflect that they are often guided (or misguided) by the idea that additional talent needs to ‘compensate’ for an impairment. This in turn leads to a greater focus on overcoming disability rather than creating enabling mechanisms to help people live fulfilling lives with their disabilities.
Despite the buzz created by Taare Zameen Par, the ground reality for children with learning disabilities is quite bleak. The country does not have any reliable and comparable data on learning disabilities. Most children with dyslexia never get identified as such due to a lack of proper screening tools. More often than not, dyslexia screening tools are available in English – a second or third language to the vast majority of children in India. This can be quite problematic, given that a child may not have the same command over English as he or she would over a native tongue.
Just recently, we finally got a screening tool in a few regional Indian languages. The Dyslexia Assessment for Languages in India (DALI) screening tool developed by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), in collaboration with the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) and the Design Innovation Centre of Delhi University, is the first such tool available in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and English. Work is underway to have it in more Indian languages.
Screening is only the first step towards creating an inclusive environment for children with dyslexia. The crucial component is teacher training. There is an acute shortage of teachers trained in addressing the needs of students who learn differently. Despite the fact that the CBSE mandates schools affiliated to it to have special needs educators, the reality is quite different.
By the Centre’s own admission, only 1,89,580 teachers have been trained on learning disabilities till December 2016. In Delhi, the state government told the high court that, of the 927 special educators posts in government schools, 432 were vacant. In smaller towns, this number would be even more abysmal. Even in schools that have a special educator, the pupil to teacher ratio is so high – much higher than the prescribed 5:1 – that it does not provide a conducive environment for children with learning disabilities to benefit in the classroom.
It is in this context that we need to weigh the reactions that the prime minister’s remarks have triggered. Yes, we should call out demeaning behaviour towards disability. But while doing so, we need to ensure that our well-intentioned outrage does not inadvertently perpetuate archaic ideas about disability that have no basis in human rights or dignity.
Unless we question our own prejudices, this won’t be the last incident where disability is used as a slur.
Dorodi Sharma has been working extensively in the field of disability rights advocacy both nationally and internationally. She tweets at @DorodiSharma.