On People With Disabilities, Arguments Over Autonomy and Ableist Patronisation

Recently, at a conference on the rights of women with disabilities, I witnessed extensive deliberation upon how it is important for persons with disabilities in general and women with disabilities in particular to lead an independent existence. A panelist beautifully laid the foundation of the discussion: “No one is ever independent. So let us not talk about independent existence and let us instead talk about autonomous existence of women with disabilities.”

Nomenclature is important – as was highlighted when the prime minister called people like disabilities like me as “divyang”. After all, words integrate and words otherise. Thus, the distinction between independence and autonomy certainly becomes significant.

But keeping words aside for a moment, it is important to unpack what autonomy means to persons with disabilities. Should they carry the burden of becoming autonomous or should someone else bear the responsibility of facilitating their autonomous existence?

After some introspection, I realised that asking the disabled to be autonomous is slightly ableist – unless institutions facilitate the unleashing of that autonomy. All through my school and college life, in personal and professional spheres, I have always been asked to push my limits. When the institutions do not provide for reasonable accommodation and instead ask the disabled to unreasonably adjust, it does not make the disabled autonomous. It just makes the institution ableist.

For instance, when a professor fails to explain graphs to a blind student and ask the student instead to push their limits, that is an unfair burden to put on the disabled person. To ask a person using a wheelchair to try harder and walk, to ask a deaf person to try harder and hear, to ask a neuro-divergent person to try harder and not express when they feel uncomfortable is all an unfair burden to put on the disabled. Autonomy cannot and should not mean compromising with the inflexible aspects of one’s disability.

The notions of disabled being strong and extraordinary have gained a lot of momentum due to inspiration porn that the community has always been subjected to. However, it is important to acknowledge that the disabled are ordinary too.

At my school, I was often told that I was given admission in a sighted school despite my blindness because I was “extraordinary”.

But why is it necessary for the disabled to be extraordinary? Why can’t they just be ordinary? Why do they always need to inspire?

Also read: White Cane Day: The Comedy on My Blindness

I finally found the answer to these questions when I read upon the legal scholarship on reasonable accommodation wherein a lot of times the institutions take the defence of undue hardship. Under this, the institutions state that they cannot provide for reasonable accommodation as providing the disabled individuals with what they require, imposes undue burden on them and due to various capacity constraints, they cannot accommodate for the needs of the disabled individuals .

It is then when that I realised that the institutions and the able-bodied ask the disabled individuals to be inspiring, extra-ordinary and autonomous as they don’t want to bear the burden of providing reasonable accommodation. For it is easier to patronise a blind person to push their limits and understand graphs without being able to see them than evolving techniques to make those graphs accessible. For it is easier to patronise a person using a wheelchair into believing that they can push their limits and walk, than constructing ramps and actually making buildings accessible for them. For it is easier to patronise a neuro-divergent person to push their limits and “behave appropriately” instead of making the environment conducive for their inclusion and integration.

Disabled individuals are autonomous in many spheres and are dependent in another few. A blind person can walk but cannot see. A person with locomotive disability can see but cannot walk. A deaf person can see and walk but cannot hear. Asking a blind person to see, asking a deaf person to hear and asking a person with locomotive disability to walk in the name of autonomy is against the laws of nature as much as it is against the disability laws of the land. It is important both for the disabled and the able bodied to acknowledge that different disabilities do bring some limitations with them. Discrediting those limitations under the garb of inspiration porn is not fair.

Let the disabled be autonomous to the extent their disability allows them to be autonomous and to the extent reasonable accommodation from the outside environment facilitates their autonomy. Expecting even an inch of more autonomy is an undue burden to put on them.

It is high time that institutions learnt to push their limits instead of forcing the disabled individuals to push their limits.

For this to happen, ramps need to be constructed in the brains of the people running the institutions. Just erecting steep and slippery ramps in a few spaces would not help address the structural problem of attitudes. Persons with disabilities are just ordinary people with no divine powers who need reasonable accommodation – and not patronisation that they are inspiring, extraordinary and autonomous – to be able to participate equally and meaningfully in the society.

Anchal Bhateja is a fourth-year B.A. LLB student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty