The word “disability” is amorphous and needs to be approached from several angles. Historically, however, disability has been viewed as the equivalent of impairment, loss, pathology, or deviation. This conception of disability leads to an ontological tendency to find medical and rehabilitative solutions to the problem of disability. Disability has therefore remained a major concern of medicine, social work and education, relying heavily on the medical / paramedical professionals who know how to cure the “problem”.
The Disability Rights Movement sought to transform disability from a matter of separate institutionalized care, healing and charity to a matter of justice and rights. The academic field of Disability Studies (DS) emerged from this movement. DS involves examining the ways in which “disability” is created – through politics, through institutional arrangements, through economic prioritization, and certainly through the use and abuse of language. Disability Studies question medicalized and rehabilitative approaches to disabilities and try to understand them on the basis of a particular epistemology. This knowledge production updates the experiences and perspectives of disabled people and their process of disability through inaccessible landscapes, societies and institutions … and leads to a more global notion that includes war, resettlement, environmental racism, state-authorized violence and genocide.
Disability Studies therefore deals with the questioning of the norms of a laboring and productivist world that culturally devalues disabled people and materially marginalizes them. It is also about raising our voices against a world system that robs people and drives them to extreme hunger and poverty and that justifies war (which all leads to disabilities).
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) of 2016 recognized the new and emerging approaches to seeing, speaking and thinking about disabilities and recognized disability as an “evolving concept”. It was therefore a move away from a predominantly medical and individualistic view of disability towards localizing the disability in a broader context. The central government recently proposed the University of Disability Studies and Rehabilitation Sciences Bill of 2021 to get a public response to the bill. It is a 128-page document with three texts: the invoice (34 pages), a detailed project report (63 pages) and an EFC memo (31 pages). The first objective of the proposed university will be to “train and develop professionals, researchers and educators in disability studies and rehabilitation sciences”. The university strives to offer graduates and advanced levels of study in eight departments namely: Department of Disability Studies, Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, Department of Audiology, Speech Pathology and Indian Sign Language, Department of Special Education, Department of Psychology, Department of Prosthetics, Orthotics and Assistive Technologies, Nursing Department and Inclusive Universal Design Department. However, the document does not address the connotations of disability studies. While there is also no mention of the rehabilitation sciences, the titles of the courses on offer suggest that the university would like to prepare not only specialist pedagogues and architects but also specialists for paramedical and social work for universal integrative design. Hence, the main focus of the university seems to be on preparing people to provide services to the disabled and the bill suggests a medically paternalistic view of disability as advances in understanding disability as an interaction between impaired and / or sick bodies and People neglect their contexts. The bill therefore appears to see disability as a problem of dysfunctional or sick bodies in need of services and to ignore the reality of discrimination as a source of social, cultural and economic marginality for people with disabilities. This avoidance of the new knowledge about disability shows, on the one hand, that the medical-paternalistic view of disability still prevails and also points to social prejudices.
In addition, it is suggested that the university be self-sustaining from the sixth year onwards. In this way, the university generates 50% of its resources from tuition fees and another 50% from membership fees and curriculum design, etc. A detailed table for this resource generation system is provided on page 14 of the EFC memo. Accordingly, a student enrolling at the university will be charged Rs 1 lakh annually as tuition, Rs 0.75 lakh as hostel rental and an additional Rs. 0.25 lakh for other charges. This makes a total of Rs 2 lakh per year per student. On the other hand, a report on taxpayers’ income published by the central government in August 2020 suggests that up to 57% of the country’s taxpayers earn less than Rs. 2.5 lakh per year. Taken together, this suggests that the university will remain elusive for most of the country’s aged students.
Overall, the document appears to have been drawn up in a hurry as it neither clearly speaks of the terms used in its title nor suggests his view on the term “disability”. In addition, the objectives outlined in this document are very similar to those of the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). Aside from the use of the term “Disability Studies” in the name of the university and one of its courses, how will this be new? The university’s response to the emerging knowledge of the subject is also not very clear. And while the document seems to focus on inclusive design, the proposed “self-sufficient university” will prove financially exclusive to most students.
The author is a research scientist at the National Institute for Educational Planning and Management in New Delhi.
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