TV grab from the promotional episode of ‘Akaax Subor Mon’.
A young girl with a disability in her feet performs a scintillating dance on a reality show on television. The anchor was jubilant. “Who will say that this girl is physically challenged? I want to feel your feet. How could you dance so well!” he exclaimed. The girl was hesitant. But the anchor insisted and went ahead and touched her feet, despite her attempts to desperately hide them beneath her sari, while showering more praise on her for her ability to dance despite her disability.
In other episodes, the people on the panel have expressed a patronizing pity for the contestants. One of them said, “Look at us. We are so healthy yet we are so lazy. Look at these talented girls and boys who are trying to carve a niche for themselves. They have inspired me to work harder.”
An elderly lady on the panel could not stop her eulogies. ’I feel so sad for them. I also feel happy that they have overcome all odds. They are our role models. Today’s lazy kids who do not even want to pick up a broom to sweep the floor or offer prayers to God should pick up lessons from them,’ she said.
Another panelist said: ‘I saw her dance and I saw her feet and felt that people would go into depression or commit suicide. These kinds of programmes can change our society.”
The “talent-cum-reality show for the specially-abled” called”Akaax Subor Mon” by a regional television channel scouted for talent from all over Assam and tried to provide them with a platform. The television industry in Assam, mostly aired from Guwahati, is trying innovative ways, laced with some masala, to enhance their TRPs. It’s a good idea but disability activists feel it could have been better executed.
“It’s a very good idea to include disabled people in a mainstream show which is for everyone. It’s not a good idea to have an exclusive talent show for disability. How would one feel if you are running a 100 meters race and you are the only runner and you get gold?” said Arman Ali, Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi, a Centre for Rehabilitation and Training for Multiple Disability in Guwahati.
Anita Anand, disability rights activist says: “Speak less and let the challenged people give their views on how they would like to be treated.”
Ketaki Bardalai, who worked in the disability sector for many years, finds the new terminology being used for persons with disabilities patronizing. Ketaki Bardalai, another activist spoke about the term divyang, “It’s like converting disability into a blessing and gift of God…. Which is going over the top in the other direction and a bit like putting persons with disabilities on a pedestal then, whereas they are just like anybody else, you or me and need to be treated equally and given same opportunities to participate in life like everyone else and their rights and entitlements should be protected.”
For the record, the suggestion to use this word came from the prime minister.
These issues are debated around the world. One important paradigm shift globally has been that the approach to people with disabilities has moved from the earlier charitable one to the current rights-based approach.
A few years ago, an American musical comedy-drama television series titled Glee was aired on the Fox network. It dealt with sexuality, race and relationships. One of the central characters was Artie. The website Reel Rundown wrote: “Glee has been getting a lot of negative attention for casting a non-disabled actor to play paraplegic Artie. This is, of course, nothing new, though it would be nice if we were actually making progress towards hiring more actors with disabilities. Kevin McHale, the actor who plays Artie, has defended the show saying that it is the same as a straight actor playing a gay character. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. A much better analogy is a white actor playing a black role by painting his face. Pretty offensive, right?”
India has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and is coming up with a new law which will be in harmony with UNCRPD. This is at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched the Accessible India Campaign and there is a push to mainstream people with disabilities to be a part of every development programme, including sports.
The Rio Paralympics are a good example. Firstpost reported, “India’s parallel sports athletes were making the country proud. A record tally of four medals, including two individual golds, at the Rio Paralympics was received well back home, but not with the same vigour as compared to the achievement of the able-bodied athletes. The appreciation that was lacking before was there, but the country was still not ready to put the Paralympians on the same pedestal as the Olympic athletes.”
Ali says it is unfair on the media houses to portrait people with disabilities as object of pity, with panelists dripping with condescension. On the Assam talent show, she said: ‘It’s shameful and I think with shows like this they are creating a wrong image of people with disabilities. It will lead to the further discrimination of an entire generation of persons with disabilities,” said Ali.
A comprehensive study on the employment of actors with disabilities in television reveals the “unjust and troubling discrimination of actors with disabilities in Hollywood,” according to a report commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The study proves that people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood.
Coming up in the 2016-2017 season, ABC’s new family comedy “Speechless” stars Micah Fowler, a young actor with cerebral palsy in real life. On the show, which stars Minnie Driver as his mother, Fowler plays JJ, the family’s eldest child, who is non-verbal. His role is a positive step, in light of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s just-released study.
Before featuring people with disabilities, Ali would like media houses, the production teams and anchors to do their homework and study the subject so that can behave with sensitivity towards a vulnerable minority. Of course it’s a welcome move if the mainstream media are beginning to start talking about, and feature, people with disabilities but it must be done in the right spirit.