Have you read Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham? The central character of the novel is a young man with a club foot. If you haven’t read this book do read it not just because it has a character that has a disability and has something “different”, it is a story that tells you how failure and success, sadness and happiness and intelligence and stupidity go hand-in-hand and despite that, we move on. The disability of Philip Carey affects every part of his life and it doesn’t allow him to live his life the way he would have liked to live, but that is not the central theme of the story. These are the problems that he has, but aside from these problems, the major problems that he faces are quintessentially related to the volatile human nature that is extremely unpredictable. He can be mean and judgemental just as people can be mean and judgemental to him. His disability doesn’t necessarily make him sensitive and if he is sensitive compared to his friends and colleagues, it is because that’s the way he is and it has got nothing to do with the way he walks. The greatest thing about this novel is that Philip doesn’t have to prove anything because he has a disability. He just tries to live his life the way he wants to live irrespective of the fact whether he succeeds or not.
These thoughts were triggered while I was reading this blog post that was published on the occasion of the Blogging against Disablism Day. I never knew that the word “disablism” existed, but it has a nice sound.
The author rightly says that people with disabilities are often depicted as vile, scheming and demented characters in various works of fiction:
There are far too many books out there that portray characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses in ways that are deeply destructive and have a seriously negative impact on the understanding of disability in general. However (and this is a big however), most of these books are clearly written by authors who have not considered their portrayal at all, and who clearly fail to respect experiences that are different to their own. These are the authors who fail to realise that disabled people are also, actually, people. These are the authors who consistently portray disabled characters as, for example, useless and/or monstrous. But these aren’t exactly difficult tropes to avoid if you treat disability as a genuine character trait, part of the full colour of your character’s depiction, rather than an easy symbol or device for your plot.
This problem arises from the fact that disability is not mainstream. You don’t see disabled people roaming around in the streets, catching public transport, getting into arguments with other people on the street, fighting elections, watching movies, doing shopping at a grocery store, visiting prostitutes, getting married, becoming successful professionals, going on dates, going to office and doing all sorts of things that people are seen doing matter-of-factly. Coming across a person with disability is always a special occasion.
Whereas situation in the comparatively developed countries might be improving and you may come across persons with disabilities more often than not, in less developed countries like India, they’re mostly seen when they are struggling with basic necessities. A visually impaired person is totally at the mercy of someone who can see especially at public places like roads, stations, stairwells and markets. A person with physical disability is often seen being helped with climbing stairs or walking across the road or something like that. Worse, you see disabled persons begging. You never see a disabled person simply going on with his or her life without having to bother about getting some sort of help. This is the problem with the environment, the infrastructure. We haven’t reached a state when public places, offices and institutions are made in such a manner that they can be universally used rather than just by people who fit in a conventional box of able-bodiedness. Once this happens, we will see persons with disabilities depicted just the way they are in literature, hypothetically.
Another problem is that we take visual cues as behavioural patterns. We have a very strict definition of what is pretty and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not and how good people look and how bad people look. For example, in most of the TV ads you will never see an intelligent person taking intelligent decisions despite being on the heavier side. He or she is always shown fumbling, unsure, doing stupid things. And then there is this slim, fit-looking, preferably taller person who has a very confident expression about him or her and takes the right decision at the right time and solves a problem that a person on the heavier side does not seem to be able to solve. It’s not just shape, even the colour matters. A darker person is shown to be under confident and not doing much in life. And then he or she suddenly uses a face cream that makes him or her fair and lo and behold! The world is nothing but a plethora of successes and happy moments.
This stereotyping is also extended to ages, social backgrounds and professions. Younger students are always making fools of their teachers and professors. In mobile phone ads, people in their 40s and 50s are often shown fumbling with their gadgets while their teen kids are shown totally cool about the latest features in their mobile phones.
Recently I saw an awareness ad in which a person from a socially disadvantaged background is shown to be gawking at a good-looking girl in a public transport vehicle. A college going well-off-looking yuppie sort of a youngster notices that and comes stands between the girl and the gawking guy. The stereotypes would have totally gone topsy-turvy had they shown a well-off guy gawking at the girl and the dark looking person from a socially disadvantaged background feeling offended and coming between the girl and the guy.
So I think more than disability, it’s the perception that is at work. You want to show a bad person or an ill-mannered person in the visual form and because you’re not very sure of your writing abilities, you use disabilities like a crooked eye, or a stuttering way of talking or walking with a limp.
As I have mentioned above, to a normal (read able-bodied) person disability is quite alien. It’s like for the directors of art movies, especially in India, depicting poverty used to be an exotic activity. That is why people like Satyajit Ray would make voyeuristic movies about how poor people live, how they dress up, how they eat and procreate. Then these movies were shown to foreign audiences because they had never seen such glaring poverty and the behavioural attributes attached to it. That is why when there is a disabled person in a movie, the highlight is his or her disability, and not what sort of life he or she lives.
Even in Indian mythology and folklore, disability is used to exaggerate villainous as well as saintly characters, or they are used symbolically. In Mahabharata, you have a limping uncle (Shakuni mama) who is the most scheming person in the entire plot. Then you have the visually impaired Dhritrashra who can see nothing and he is totally indecisive as well as impotent. Ashtavakra (having 8 physical deformities) in Ramayana had to prove his worth by showing exceptional intelligence. The jealous and evil uncle of Heer, Kaido, also had a limp and walked with a stick, but his character is a bit complex because his evil and jealousy originate from the raw deal that he gets from the society for having a disability.
Anything that is not ordinary becomes a stereotype, and I think in most of the stories, disability, whether depicted in good light or bad light, is used as a stereotype rather than making a statement. So when a writer writes about a villain who has a limp, he or she is not trying to say that people with limps are bad, he or she usually just wants to express it stereotypically. I’m not saying this is right, but this is how stereotypes are used.
Will this change once disability becomes mainstream? I don’t think so. Things will surely improve, but do you really think people who create stereotyped characters using race, color, regional accent and body shapes will be open-minded enough to depict persons with disabilities in a non-stereotypical manner?