The Power of Language – Relooking the History of Disability-Related Terminology

By Satyajit Amin

In 1835, the French astronomer Adolphe Quetelet published an essay entitled “L’Homme Moyen” (the average man). In it, Quetelet used statistical techniques to analyse the similarities in the biological and social natures of man. This systematic approach was novel, and allowed for a portrait of society to be painted in patterns of averages. Quetelet argued that the traits most commonly represented in humanity were the ones that were ‘normal’— those who deviated from this set were not. This marriage of mathematical analysis and scientific study yielded many offspring: The development of the Body Mass Index (BMI), for example, was one fruitful outcome. Quetelet’s essay, however, also had a more dubious consequence. In the natural sciences, statistical abnormalities are scorned and disregarded. They can be disruptive drains on resources, and have no real value. But this rational enmity takes on an altogether different complexion when the ‘abnormalities’ have names, faces, and identities.

The ‘differently abled’ in our society have suffered from this unconscious statistical calculation since time immemorial. Quetelet’s reputation only legitimised the superiority complex of the ‘normal’, commencing an epoch of eugenics that reached its nadir during the Third Reich. Treating people like flawed statistics seems unthinkable, but it is far more common than we think. Indeed, this attitude even permeates the terminology we use to describe individuals with ‘special needs’. It is therefore worth examining the provenance of some of the most common terms we use today, to understand what they originally meant, and how we should use them today.

The adjective ‘handicapped’ has been mostly ejected from the popular lexicon due to its negative connotations. The term’s history is an interesting one, and illustrates the historical complexities behind words that are often used fecklessly. ‘Handicap’ was originally derived from a barter game called “Hand-in-cap”, and was not used to describe disabilities until at least 1915. From 1754, it was generally used to describe the extra weight that certain racing horses were made to carry in order to equalise the field. By 1883, the term came to describe the concept of imposed equalisation, particularly in sports. Over time, however, the term came to symbolise impediments in a general.

The demeaning nature of the term arises could also have arisen from an association with poverty. By 1887, placing a hand in one’s cap was a show of deference to a judge. Presumably because a large proportion of convicts were of low socio-economic status, the term became inexplicably associated with begging. Most accounts maintain that the practice of begging has nothing to do with the term ‘handicapped’ etymologically, but the popular perception that they are linked may have arisen because a large number of economically disenfranchised individuals were also people with disabilities, who had to resort to begging in order to support themselves.

This word is another adjective frequently used to describe people with disabilities. It remains frequently utilised in common parlance, although the term ‘differently abled’ is sometimes preferred. The intention behind the use of the term usually lacks pejorative malice, though the term itself is sometimes construed as being inherently expressive of disdain. As per linguistic scholar Arika Orkent, the adoption of the term ‘disabled’ by activists was due to objections to the term ‘handicapped’, which had grown common by the 1970s. Specifically, the perception that the term was associated with poverty was a cause for objection.

The disability scholar Jack A. Nelson wrote that the rejection of the term may also have been due to a desire to take ownership of the term used to identify the community of people with disabilities. He wrote that “ {although the word handicapped is} in keeping with the disability rights movement’s analysis of the situation—that the individual is okay but society has put him or her at a disadvantage—the term was nonetheless rejected when disabled people began wresting the power of the programs that controlled their lives from social workers and began to run their own programs…if for no other reason that it was a term imposed on them by agencies.”

The issues surrounding the terminologies used to describe individuals living with disabilities are numerous. The issues have historical, economic, and socio-political undertones, and it is important to be aware of these subtle nuances when interacting with the differently abled.

The idea here, is not to suggest one term that one could use in addressing individuals or groups. All of us have a right to be treated respectfully, with dignity. Whether you choose to use people-first language, addressing or referring to someone, such as ‘person with disability’ or ‘person with some impairment’, or identity-first language of ‘differently abled,’ keep in mind that the words we use have a history behind them, and the way we use them have an impact on individuals.

Toni Morrison said it best, in Beloved, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” As you interact with someone, try to understand how they prefer to be addressed.

Media Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse

By Bhumika Sahani

Upholding the principles of its role as the fourth pillar of democracy, the media has a responsibility to bring the issue of child sexual abuse into the realm of public debate. It is integral that the issue gets highlighted, is given due attention and recognized by masses as a gruesome offence against children.

Albeit the responsibility bestowed upon the media, it is saddening to see the sensationalisation that the media at large is engaging in instead of sensitive reporting, as is expected of it.

Let us look at some of the headlines from reports that have come out in the print media in the recent past.

Girl ‘raped’ by youth in Thane
11 year old rape victim gives birth to child
6 year old girl raped in crèche, owner’s husband booked
Eighteen-month-old child raped by her uncle in Uttar Pradesh
4-year-old ‘raped’, left bleeding on street
Nine-year-old critical after rape, undergoes surgeries

The news stories go on to talk about the details of the incident and at times even divulge personal details of the child and the family, in complete violation of the principles of confidentiality under the POCSO Act, 2012 and the JJ Act. These stories do little to bring the perpetrator to light, instead placing the onus of the abuse on the child, the result of which is victim-shaming.

The articles are also in contradiction of the guidelines given by National Human Rights Commission and National Commission for Protection of Child Rights stating how media should report on the issue of child sexual abuse. The guidelines explicitly specify that under no circumstances should the identity of the child be disclosed. The reporter should uphold the principle of confidentiality so as to not put the child and the family under further emotional and mental distress.

The guidelines also explain how the media must guard the rights of children as guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially the principle of best interest when reporting on such issues.

The media, it appears, also suffers from an ‘adultist culture’ – the power adults have over children – wherein a child related issue is viewed from the eyes of an adult and reported from that position of power pointing towards an unequal power relations between children and adults. News media portray children in limited roles as objects of emotional appeal, victims or performers. Whereas what one needs is to respect child’s right to participation and right to expression for matters that concern them. What is needed is for them to pass the mic and let the voices of children be heard.

It is in light of these principles (as charted and guaranteed in United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child), that the newspaper ‘Balaknama’ needs to be viewed. Balaknama is an outcome of neglect and injustice to street and working children across the world. “When children did not find space among adults, they decided to pen down their issues and glories, an attempt to change people’s perception and ensuring identity, dignity, and participation of street children,” says their website.

What is worth mentioning is how the newspaper has given the space to children to voice their experiences and not remain mere passive entities, while ensuring that their anonymity is maintained.

Following is a paragraph from their report on child sexual abuse that was published in the May-June, 2018 issue, titled “Next Door Neighbour Abusing Girl” –

Sharing her own story, the innocent girl said,

There is a man who lives on the same floor, where we live. He always tries to harass me. He, first greed me buy showing toffees or chocolates and then pull me up and try to touch my private body parts. Not only this, at night when all of us are sleeping, he cuts our cloths, which are hanging outside for drying, from the area of private parts. Everyone hates that person but our landlord does not throw him out of the building. Due to this only I am living a fearful life and afraid of getting out of my home.” She knows about the child helpline number but when she tries to talk to them and share her problem with the child helpline, her parents won’t support her. “Not only this, my family members don’t allow for police complaints too as they are afraid that, that person will hurt me or any other family member.

The paper goes on to document various other instances of sexual abuse that the children go through where they have been made to watch pornography, threatened into undressing and blackmailed into having sexual relationship with the perpetrator. The editorial urges the stakeholders in child safety, like police officers and administrators, to take action.

What the children have been able to achieve through a newspaper run by them, is a shift of focus from the child as a victim to the act as an offence. Through the accounts of many children, the report also brings into sharp focus the unfortunate every day and normalized nature of the offence. Also, giving abuse survivors the opportunity to speak out about their experiences might encourage others in a similar situation to ask for help.

There are lessons aplenty that the media houses can learn from initiatives like Balaknama. It is about time they reassess their approach towards reporting on issues concerning children, especially child sexual abuse.

While reporting sexual abuse, the media needs to keep in mind the best interest of the child, namely:-

  • Highlight the perpetrator his/her demography, background, brutality of his/her act rather than the demographics of the victim
  • Bring blame and shame towards the perpetrator rather than highlight the stigmatization of the child who was abused.
  • When reporting on sexual violence against children also report on the steps taken by the authorities to address and prevent such incidents; as well as the responsibility of adult citizens in intervening and preventing abuse.
  • Simultaneously run programs that highlight the fact that ensuring the safety and dignity of children is the responsibility of adults, as well as help adults learn how to teach Personal Safety to small children without instilling fear or distrust of adults.
  • Follow up the case/s intermittently until the trial is completed.
  • Clear guidelines for media have been provided in the Bal Suraksha app, download it from the google playstore for free.

    Going Beyond the Doing

    Article contributed by Ranjani Seetharaman

    I believe that the presence of unconditional love in childhood is what shapes an individual’s future. It is key to the development of a healthy sense of self which includes self-confidence, self-respect and self-worth. I can go as far as to say that it is the right of every child to receive unconditional love. Unconditional love simply refers to having no conditions to be loved, accepted and respected. It is essentially separating the child from what he/she does.

    Conditional love or acceptance eventually conveys the message that “you are not enough the way you are”. Unconditional love on the other hand is a constant reminder to the child he/she is good enough and is deserving of all the opportunities that life may offer. A child should feel loved and accepted just for who he/she is.

    We tend to convey messages to the child, sometimes even without our awareness that she/he is not good enough. In other words, we fail to respect children for who they are and instead see them as insignificant living things. It is not uncommon to see adults damage the being of the child by saying “you are dull/slow” because of academic failures. The child forgets that he/she is beyond academic or social failures. The label never gets erased.

    When I was young, my mother trusted me to take new gold earrings to the temple nearby, about 50 yards from home. The trust in me made me feel that I am worthy of the job. Since I was a responsible child, it seemed like a very simple task. Blinded by my overconfidence, I skipped happily and excitedly towards the temple. But on the way, I dropped the box and the earrings fell out. I couldn’t find one of the earrings and my heart sank. I felt like a loser, a betrayer of trust. All I could do was go back home with shame and disappointment in myself. My mother listened to me and while I was preparing myself for some scolding, she instead said that it’s OK and that mistakes happen. What I did was not OK but it did not make me a bad person. It did not make me a betrayer, rather the action that I chose to do was irresponsible. Constant communication that reinforces the fact that “you are OK” is the key to providing unconditional love.

    It is sad that spaces that are supposed to nurture and support the growth of the children ironically are where they are demotivated and disrespected. Corporal punishment, verbal abuse, neglect, ignoring voices that want to speak, differential treatment and comparing achievements are activities that reinforce the idea, “I am not good enough”. They break down a child’s identity along with the ability to respect the self and others. The damage caused leaves a permanent scar. As adults, in any field of work, it is our duty to make sure we convey the right messages to the child. The curious, active, kind and joyful nature of children is most important to be preserved. Many of us might not have received unconditional love, but I believe that that is no reason to deprive the younger generation of their right. Let us explore our natural capacity to generate and give unconditional love.