Guest-Editorial – Intersectional Identities: Disability and the Other Margins
By Nandini Ghosh and Shilpaa Anand
Nothing can jolt us into thinking of cross-cutting vulnerabilities more starkly than the continuing stream of news about Kashmiris being blinded by pellets used by the armed forces to quell their protests. Violently acquired disabilities are some of the most difficult disabilities to come to terms with or accept, particularly those that are acquired in the context of or due to another marginality marker, for instance as in this case, being Kashmiri and fighting for ‘azaadi’, while resisting the control exuded by the Indian armed forces. Such incidents stimulate reflection on the ways in which social and cultural identities merge, intertwine and intermesh with one another in the different contexts in which people live. People everywhere experience intersecting social markers of identity in their lives as a result of social and power structures that constitute society. These multiple identities of people give rise to different forms of domination and discrimination, which are located within particular systems and structures of oppression. As an analytical tool to study and understand the convergence of multiple identities, intersectionality reveals the multifarious kinds of discrimination and oppression, that people with different identity markers experience, respond to and counter in their everyday lives. As seemingly discrete forms and expressions of oppression shape and are shaped by one another, there is a need to unravel structures, social processes, and socio-cultural representations that influence the disabled person’s experience of the social world.
The term ‘disability’ is inherently imbued with the notion of difference – people with varying forms and different degrees of impairments have been accommodated within this concept. Such diversity, not surprisingly, creates in-group structures of dominance and oppression, which may often go unnoticed to privilege the political clamour for identity and rights. Thus intersectionality in the realm of disability becomes even more complex to comprehend and expose, as marginalities both within the disability group identity and with other social identities have to be prioritised in relation to structure and context so that the experiences and sentiments of those who are oppressed may emerge. Disablement affects people in different contexts differently and often the same impairment in two different contexts may be differently disabling. Intersectional identities also affect people with invisible disabilities such as deafness, intellectual impairments, and psycho-social disabilities. The perspectives of these groups of disabled people, however, hardly emerge in public spaces or are debated upon, thereby creating and propagating in-group differences among disabled people as Deepa Palaniappan’s article, in this issue, foregrounds.
Disability, at times, is not embraced as an identity, just as other social markers of difference may not be embraced as identities. Even if a person does not self-identify as disabled, certain disabilities frame an individual from a third-person-point-of-view, i.e., they are identified as disabled whether by some external entity. Disability, then, layers itself with other marked out differences, sometimes lying dormant as an unclaimed marker and sometimes emerging as a political orientation with other social identities and markers that constitute personhood. Given this, the question that arises is of engaging with a social movement (the disability movement/s), whose discourse attempts to identify disability as a social marker of difference, discrimination, and marginality and reclaim it as a matter of identity and pride.
This issue of Café Dissensus delves into a variety of such intersections and parallels. Conceptually, the pieces by Amita Dhanda, Kalpana Kannabiran and R. Srivatsan engage with ideas of difference, diversity and accommodation placed within the current socio-political scenario of power hierarchies and social domination. Dhanda argues for making accommodations for different vulnerable groups in higher educational institutions, by citing the experience and gains of applying the ‘reasonable accommodation’ clause that is drawn from disability law. Kannabiran’s essay interrogates the lack of substantive equality for disabled prison inmates in India, which stands in contradiction to the UNCRPD that prohibits degrading, inhuman, and cruel treatment of all disabled people. She bases her argument on the case study of a disabled English professor, G.N.Saibaba, an alleged political criminal, who was incarcerated and denied access to the intensive and continual care he required to keep his bodily condition from worsening.
In his essay, Srivatsan juxtaposes mental health, disability, and caste discourses to contemplate convergences that are instructive because of their complexity. Such convergences can facilitate the process of seeking justice by different disadvantaged groups through inclusive design and accommodation, through proactive state intervention in policy formulation and implementation. Taken together, the pieces by Dhanda, Srivatsan, and Deepa Palaniappan also reflect on the intersections and parallels of caste and disability. Palaniappan’s piece investigates the parallels and distinctions between reservation policies and their implementation while urging for a robust politics of disability through the strengthening of sub-group differences.
A second thread that binds together some of the entries is the intersectionality of gender and disability. Yogesh and Avinash Shahi offer ethnographic accounts of the multiple vulnerabilities experienced by women with physical disabilities by discussing defecation practices and sexual threats. Complicating the now fairly familiar anti-rape discourse, Bindhulakshmi’s essay provokes us to reconsider the popular treatment meted to a disabled rapist in the case of Govindachamy in Kerala. The social construction of deviant bodies contributes to the production of a disabled monster in local discourse with the subliminal message being the removal of deviant bodies from the able-bodied society. Does the heightened consciousness of one kind of politics often conveniently subsume the intricacies of another kind of politics? Shruti Venukumar’s poem looks at the world of disability through able-bodied eyes while satirizing the emerging rhetoric of disability politics in a gendered world.
Anita Ghai, Sameer Chaturvedi, Rukmini Sen, and Himanshu share personal narratives from different perspectives, all of which act as signposts to issues that need to be addressed from a multiple identity perspective. Ghai’s narrative dwells on different discriminatory experiences during her life as a woman with polio, who also suffered from severe illness that were equally disabling. Sameer focuses on his coming-of-age years in particular, to illustrate how childhood kinship of disabled young boys with their siblings can transform into feeling of alienation in adolescence and adulthood within families. Sen’s perspective is that of a non-resident daughter who comes to terms with her father’s aging and forgetfulness. She, along with Ghai, raises questions that have hitherto remained unanswered by the disability sector and society at large – how to accommodate the elderly, many of whom are also affected by disabling conditions, within the category of ‘disabled people’? The three narratives reminisce about familial interactions and how different forms of disablement interact with parental, filial, and sibling bonds to reconfigure them and become reconfigured by them. Himanshu Upadhyay’s poem presents the persona of a deaf, sign-language using friend of Rohith Vemula, who signs to Rohith about the experiences of being a silent witness to the politics underpinning the events after his death. The poem invokes similarities and differences between being deaf and being dalit in an Indian university.
Srilatha Juvva and Candice Menezes depart from the political vein that dominates this issue by exploring the ambiguous intersections between ‘the religious’ and ‘the spiritual’ and the framing of disability and impairment. While inclusion is theoretically espoused, exclusion seems to be evident in practice and this has implications both at the societal and individual levels.
Three of the articles relate to the more concrete aspects that highlight intersectionality – education and work. Jayasree Subramanium argues that by ignoring the diversity within mathematics as a discipline, school curricula serves the interest of certain sections of learners more, thereby raising questions about equity concerns to meet the needs of diverse set of learners. Two of the pieces – Meenu Bhambhani and Nookaraju – reflect on the professional responses to disability within the corporate echelons of the IT sector and the media industry respectively. Nookaraju critiques media’s representation of disabled people by urging for social acceptance of people with disabilities by highlighting their abilities/skills, thereby reinstating the notion of the ‘Supercrip.’ Media may play a dual role in marketing the potential of disabled people by arguing for their skill development to meet industry requirements, while also promoting the use of their ‘untapped’ abilities for gaining social acceptance. Bhambhani writes from the perspective of a potential employer, contradicting the most popular myths about disabled people in terms of employment and highlighting the fact that access to privilege and opportunities create a divide among disabled people.
When we called for entries for this issue of the magazine, we invited social activists, lay persons, and academics to reflect on the salience that disability has in the context of other marginalities and identities of vulnerability. We were also interested in entries from disabled people to discuss how specific impairments interact with other categories of marginality. How do disabled people in India negotiate their disability experience and identity alongside other categories they belong to? The essays compiled here as you will find, ask unasked questions and look in unlooked at places for answers whose aim is not to gain popular acclaim or find long-lasting solutions but to expand the discourse and deepen analysis of what disability is and how we live in and negotiate with different and intersecting corporealities continuously.
Dr. Nandini Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. She has a Ph. D in Social Sciences from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the broad area of Gender and Disability Studies. She is engaged in research on issues of marginalisation and development from a gender, disability and development perspective. She also teaches qualitative research and sociology for M Phil courses in IDSK and is a guest lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Her website.
Dr. Shilpaa Anand teaches in the Department of English at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad. Her research is in the area of disability history and disability and culture. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.