Women’s Day is fast approaching and women with disabilities are an important narrative to explore as they face double discrimination, considering their gender. Intersectionality makes these women more vulnerable to hatred and ostracism, as evidenced by two recent cases involving public places like a restaurant and a movie theater.
The 2011 census indicates that more than 21 million people in India live with a disability, of which 9.3 million are women. From reproductive rights to their right to education and employment, every step is a struggle for these women. But if you think it’s their disability that is holding back their participation and representation, you’re wrong. The biggest obstacle they face comes from our society which barely makes an effort to create spaces that are suitable for people with disabilities.
From schools to workplaces and recreational spaces like restaurants, disability is viewed as an inconvenience by society, and people with special disabilities feel unwanted – a burden no one wants to carry. This unfair attitude creates a hostile environment that only complicates the lives of people with disabilities.
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Women with disabilities, especially from rural areas, are often excluded from family interactions, important decisions and community activities. In addition, they are exposed to social stigma and stereotypes within society. Unfair and unjust treatment often causes them to feel devalued, isolated and ashamed.
As noted by the World Health Organization, “Disability is therefore not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between the characteristics of a person’s body and the characteristics of the society in which he lives.
Recently, Kavya Mukhija, a woman in a wheelchair, went with her family to a PVR cinema that claimed to be wheelchair accessible. However, upon arriving at the theater, she was forced to sit near the cinema doors and not next to her family. When Mukhija took to social media to recount her ordeal, she received a lot of empathy. But did she trigger a societal or infrastructural change, which would ensure that no other woman would have to face the same thing? Barely, and Mukhija was not the only disabled woman to have been treated harshly this year.
Srishti Pandey recalled in a viral thread earlier this year how staff at a pub in Gurugram allegedly told her other customers would be “bothered” if she had access to indoor seating. Pub management claimed in a statement that they had asked Pandey to opt for outdoor seating for his own “safety”. That a public space would rather have a disabled woman sit outside than create a disability-friendly infrastructure sums up our attitude towards people with disabilities. It is always people with disabilities who have to compromise because we are too busy making excuses.
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The pandemic has worsened the conditions of these women, especially in India. In 2020, Renu Adlakha, a disability and gender researcher at the Center for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi, shared her experience of the pandemic in a panel and said, “I have access to mobility, a Independent source of income, I live in a big city, in a community of middle class households. And yet, I felt so helpless during the pandemic. The pandemic has been particularly cruel to these women and made them more vulnerable.
Of course, there have been many stories of women who have taken on these social challenges head-on, living their lives to the fullest. Take Payal Kapoor, for example, who lost his sight at the age of 22 due to an irreversible disease. Recounting her experience with the disability, she told SheThePeople: “Of course it hasn’t always been easy. People turned their backs on me. I remember I was at a conference once and a coffee break happened. Before I could ask anyone for help, the room was empty. It was a humbling experience. I have also been rejected from jobs because of my appearance.
Kapoor didn’t let society’s attitude towards his disability stop him. “I reached a point where I got tired of sitting still – ‘That’s it! I have to go there and live again. A friend put me in touch with an NGO who taught me life skills that I would need every day. I also learned Braille and what a feeling it was to proofread!
Despite these inspiring stories, the fact remains that India needs to take concrete steps both at political and societal levels to raise awareness of the cause of making public spaces accessible. In the past, we have seen many cases where women with disabilities have been subjected to horrific sex crimes, proving that we have failed even to ensure the safety of those so vulnerable to abuse.
On this Women’s Day, let’s not celebrate femininity but focus on finding solutions that can bring immediate relief to women with disabilities.