Sunday, 12 July 2015

Disabled and Differently-abled

Are we taking political correctness to extremes these days?  I especially noticed this during the recent newspaper articles about Ira Singhal, the candidate who topped the latest UPSC exams.  Ira Singhal suffers from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. Some news articles were calling her "differently-abled" instead of "disabled", presumably for the sake of political correctness. 

Why is "disabled" considered a negative word? It really shouldn't, should it? It is a fairly objective word to describe that a specific human body is not capable of what might be considered ordinary by others.

Yeah, someone might argue that she topped the UPSC this year, and that is her different ability. But hey, so did some non-handicapped person last year - his name was Gaurav Agarwal. The media weren't calling him differently-abled now, were they?
I don't intend to sound judgmental against Ira Singhal, but from what I have read about her, there is nothing differently abled about her. She is a really smart person who happens to have a sub-optimal curvature of the spine. If the word "disabled" is the official Oxford Dictionary term used to describe, albeit in a generic manner, this condition, then there is nothing politically incorrect about it.
Coming to the point of differently-abled, there are two TED talks that got me thinking about what differently abled really means.
  1. Could Genetics Hold the Answer to Curing Autism - Wendy Chung is a researcher focusing on genetic causes of autism and explains that Autism is not a disease, but a spectrum of diseases. And often, a child can have a trade-off of one skill in favor of another. E.g. when growing up, a child may not learn to make eye contact, but can be super smart in math at the time. Perhaps that is what the term differently abled should mean.
  2. How Do You Reinvent Yourself After a Near-Death Experience? - This one must be one the most inspirational TED talks out there. Hugh Herr shows how to convert disability to opportunity in the truest of senses, and to expand human capability.  I preferred the Guy Roz interview of Hugh Herr to the actual TED talk.  Please do click on Listen to the Story at the NPR link before you watch the video.  
My favorite line from Hugh Herr's talk is "So when I was feeling badly about myself, insecure I would jack my height up. But when I was feeling confident and suave, I would knock my height down a notch just to give the competition a chance."  Just to give the competition a chance?  Isn't that the attitude that exemplifies what "differently abled" should mean?  And honestly, that is kind of different ability I personally would love to cultivate.

So in my opinion, calling the disabled as differently-abled purely for reasons of political correctness is not right. As long as one does not use the word "disabled" with contempt, there is no disrespect in using that word.  And let's save the phrase "differently abled" for those who truly are.

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