The language of ability
Lalitha Sridhar interviews Jayshree Raveendran, director of the Ability Foundation, and founder-editor of the cross-disability magazine Success and Ability, on the media's portrayal of handicapped persons.
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Q : What is your impression of the media's coverage of disability issues?

A: The People With Disabilities Act was passed in 1995 and for the first time, people with disabilities came out of their shell, asking for their rights, asking for equal participation. The media occasionally used to blow up the achievements of the disabled persons as super human beings or always give the attribute or the idea that the disabled person is a special person - a person with special needs, everything special. So they gave the segregation - the disabled person is never part of the mainstream society. By changing the perspective, by looking at the disabled person as a potential rather than a problem, not special but ordinary in every way - that's where the media can step in. That's a very important aspect.

Just talk about the needs of any human being, as you would cover the political needs, the social needs, whatever needs and issues - economic issues, sports, recreation - you take it, you have it - because it is the life of a human being. Ultimately you just have to get on with life as a whole. So then, the media is a very, very powerful tool - especially the print media, the television media and of course, the Internet which is coming on now in a very big way.

Over and above all that, the issue has to reach the public. The Government has several programmes, we have companies like the Tata Group which have several policies - but how does the person with disability know about them? How do we know about their implementation? What is being done? What is not being done? And who is being open, democratic? And who is not being open? The media has to bring it out in the eyes of the public. The disabled do read and get news from the newspapers too.

There are many aspects to media. In film media, for instance, the portrayal of people with disabilities has been very poor. If you limp you are a villain, if you can't hear you are a comedienne. And the film media is a very powerful tool. It influences a lot of people. So there is very much a need for a lot of films which portray the disabled persons in the right light. And in the television media we have a lot of sponsored programmes - I have always wondered why those multinationals who sponsor the programmes don't touch the issue of disability. Discrimination on the grounds of disability - the subject is vast. The print media has improved marginally and definitely, in a sense, a lot of things are coming in the media now. But even so, it's not enough at all.

Q : When the issue of the disability is covered, how important is the language used?

A : Very important. I would say 95% so. The language is the most important of all. It does matter. The person who is visually impaired is not necessarily blind. In the case of the hearing impaired, the term deaf is fine but deaf and dumb - it's not right because nobody is dumb. Dumb means something is wrong with your intelligence. And a wheelchair user being called invalid is very, very hurting. Or the person with intellectual disability - they are referred to as so many things. It's the feeling of the person you are referring to. I am against words like special - specially able, specially challenged. That word special once again pushes you away. You are not special - you are an ordinary part of society. So it depends so much, really.

Q : How should the disability sector prepare itself better in order to interact more effectively with the media?

A : The disability sector has to prepare itself very much because the concept of pity and sympathy has them being told they "can do only so much" - being conditioned by their immediate social circles prevents so much in the sector. The feeling is "Oh! I can't do this so how can I do that?"- that aspect has been ingrained in their head. There is a very strong need for the sector to come out of that - to be told there is much more they can do, which in turn will reflect on the media. We should tell the media to write about them from a better angle. Society - it takes two hands to clap. People with disabilities have to come half way, come forward, tell people what they are, what they can do.

Q : What motivated you to start a magazine on disability? Is it principally for increasing awareness or is it meant to be more of news-you-can-use?

A : When you look around the magazine scenario in the country, you find there is a magazine on every subject under the sun - we have one on politics, we have one on sport, we have one on tennis, golf - you name it and there is a magazine on that. When you think we are in a country with 70 million disabled people, there is a feeling that there is no need to feel alone. There are so many others like you who have similiar feeling, who have similiar problems as you - open up the world to them. And it is also a question of telling the general public to read about them, to understand them better. It is not a magazine for disabled people. It is a magazine for people who care.

The focus is on people with disabilities. There are magazines which touch upon the issue of disability - glorifying a particular problem, a particular person. Or there is somebody downtrodden with problems - "Oh, poor thing, what will he do?" - this kind of thing. It's not only about extremes. There is a lot more. People who come to conferences and seminars on the issue are a very, very, very small handful of people, compared to the large majority of disabled people in the country. Major Ahluwalia (Chairman of the Rehabilitation Council of India) - he scaled the Mt Everest - people like that waiting to tell people the other side to them.

Disability is not an issue by itself. It is a part of all human issues - it's a part of education, a part of employment, a part of living life, laughing, passions - everything. So that is why it struck me to start a magazine like Success & Ability. Initially, when I started, I was happy that everyone understood the need for such a magazine. The awareness the magazine itself generated was beautiful but I am not very happy in terms of the quantity - the number of people it has reached out to. It should be much wider because the magazine goes out all over the country - from Jammu & Kashmir to Kanyakumari. We get beautiful people who say how much the magazine has dragged them out of depression. People write asking for addresses of people like Mr Pandiarajan (of Ma Foi Management Consultants which helps in placements for the disability sector) to find out about job openings - the kind of hope that it has been giving has been lovely.

India Together
April 2002

[This article is republished with the permission of Sevanti Ninan. It was originally published at]. Jayshree Raveendran can be contacted at Lalitha Sridhar is a Chennai-based freelance journalist with an abiding interest in conscientious reporting and human rights issues.