An Introduction to Social Inequality
In the Indian society we see social inequality and exclusion everyday in our daily lives. We see beggars in many areas and young children labouring as domestic workers, construction helpers , cleaners etc. We also see caste discrimination against children in schools, violence against women and prejudice against minority groups and differently abled. This everydayness (commonness) of social inequality and exclusion often make them appear inevitable, and almost natural.
Some of us recognise that in equality and exclusion are not inevitable, and consider such conditions of these people as being ‘deserved’ or ‘justified’. We sometimes think that the place where they are today is due to the reason that they have not tried hard enough to improve their existing situation.
It is true that hard work matters and so does individual ability. If all other things are equal, then personal effort, talent and luck would surely account for all the differences between individuals. But, that is not the case. All other things are not equal. It is these non-individual or group differences that explain social inequality and exclusion.
Social Concept About Social Inequality and Exclusion
In order to understand social concept about social inequality and exclusion we need to consider three major points:
(i) Social inequality and exclusion are social because they are not about individuals but about groups.
(ii) They are social in the sense that they are not economic, although there is usually a strong link between social and economic inequality.
(iii) They are systematic and structured, there is a definite pattern to social inequalities.
In a society, everyone have valued resources be it money, property, education, health and power. These social resources are divided into three forms of capital:
(i) Economic Capita : In the form of material assets and income.
(ii) Cultural Capital : Such as educational qualification and status.
(iii) Social Capital : In the from of networks of contacts and social associations.
All these three forms of capital overlap and one can be converted into the other. For example, a person from a well-off family (economic capital) can afford expensive higher education and so can acquire cultural or educational capital. Someone with influential relatives and friends (social capital) may through access to good advice, recommendations or information manage to get a well-paid job.
Now, the pattern we see of inequality in access to social resources are commonly called social inequality. Some social inequality reflects innate differences between individuals for example, their varying abilities and efforts. Someone may be endowed with exceptional intelligence or talent or may have worked very hard to achieve their wealth and stuatus.
However, social inequality is not the outcome of innate or ‘natural’ differences between people, but is produced by the society in which they live. Sociologists used the term social stratification to refer to a system by which categories of people in a society are ranked in a hierarchy. This hierarchy then shapes people’s identity and experiences, their relations with others, as well as their access to resources and opportunities.
Key Features of Social Stratification
The three key principles that explains social stratification are as follows:
(i) Social stratification is a characteristic of society, not simply a function of individual differences. It is a society wide system that unequally distributes social resources among categories of people. In most technologically primitive societies e.g. hunting and gathering societies, wherein little was produced so only rudimentary social stratification could exist. On the other hand, in more technologically advanced societies where people produce a surplus over and above their basic needs, social resources are unequally distributed to various social categories regardless of people’s innate individual abilities.
(ii) Social stratification persists over generations : It is closely linked to the family and the inheritance of social resources from one generation to another. A person’s social position is ascribed. It means children assume the social position of their parents. Within the caste system, birth dictates occupational opportunities. A Dalit is likely to be confined to traditional occupations such as agricultural labour, scavenging or leather work, with little chance of being able to get high-paying , white-collar or professional work.
The ascribed aspect of social inequality is reinforced by the practice of endogamy. In this system, marriage is usually restricted to members of the same caste, ruling out the potential for blurring caste lines through inter-marriage.
(iii) Social stratification is supported by patterns of belief, or ideology : No system of social stratification is likely to persist over generations, unless it is widely viewed as being either fair of inevitable.
For example, the caste system is justified in terms of the opposition of purity and pollution, with the Brahmins designated as the most superior and Dalits as the most inferior by virtue of their birth and occupation. Not everyone, though, thinks of a system of inequality as legitimate. Typically, people with the greatest social privileges express the strongest support for systems of stratification such as caste and race. Those who have experienced the exploitation and humiliation of being at the bottom of the hierarchy are most likely to challenge it.
Notions of Social Exclusions and Discrimination
Social exclusion and discrimination are majorly considered as the outcome of discrimination in economic resources. However, this is not true. These are also caused by gender, religion, ethnicity, language, caste and disability. Thus, women from a privileged background may face sexual harassment in public places. A middle class professional from a minority religious or ethnic group may find it difficult to get accommodation in a middle class colony even in metropolitan city.
Each of us grows up as a member of community from which we acquire ideas not just about ‘community’, ‘our caste’ or ‘class’, ‘our gender but also about others. Some of the notions that spring up due to these ideas are explained below:
Prejudices literally meaning ‘pre-judgement’ refers to pre-conceived opinions or attributes held by members of one group towards another. It means an opinion formed in advance of any familiarity with the subject, before considering any available evidence. A prejudiced person’s views are often based on hearsay (rumor) rather than on direct evidence and are resistant to change even in the face of new information.
Prejudices can be positive or negative. Generally it is associated with negative pre-judgements, but it can also apply to favourable ones. For example, a person may be prejudiced in favour of members of his/her own caste or groups and without any evidence – believe them to be superior to members of others castes or groups.
Prejudices are often grounded in stereotypes, fixed and inflexible characterisations of a group of people. Stereotypes are often applied to ethnic and racial groups and to women. In a country such as India, which was colonised for a long time, many of these stereotypes are partly colonial creations. Some communities were characterised as ‘martial races’ others as cowardly, and others as untrustworthy. In both English and Indian fictional writings we often encounter an entire group of people classified as ‘lazy’ or ‘cunning’.
It may be true that some individuals are sometimes lazy or cunning, brave or coward. Even for such individuals, it is not true all the time, because the same individual may be both lazy and hardworking at different times. Stereotypes fix whole group into single, homogenous categories: they refuse to recognise the variation across individuals and across contexts or across time. The entire community is characterised by an all encompassing trait or characteristic.
Discrimination refers to actual behaviour towards another group or individual. It can be seen in practices that disqualify members of one group from opportunities open to others, or when a person is refused a job because of their gender or religion. Discrimination can be very hard to prove as it may not be open or explicitly stated. Discriminatory behaviour or practices are often presented as motivated by justifiable, reasons rather than prejudice. For example, the person who is refused a job because of their caste, may be told that they were less qualified than others, and that the selection was done purely on merit.
Social exclusion refers to the way in which individuals may become cut-off from complete involvement in the wider society. It focuses on a broad range of factors that prevent individuals or groups from having opportunities open to the majority of the population. In order to live a full and active life, individuals must not only be able to feed, clothe and house themselves, but should also have access to essential goods and services such as education, health, transportation, insurance, social security, banking and access to the police or judiciary.
Characteristic of Social Exclusion
Social exclusion is not accidental by systematic. It is a result of structural features of society.
It is involuntary that is exclusion is practiced regardless of the wishes of those who are excluded. For example, we will never see rich people sleeping on pavements or under the bridges like thousands of homeless poor people in cities and towns. This does not meant that the rich are being ‘excluded’ from access to pavements and park benches because they could certainly gain access if they wanted to, but they choose not to.
Social exclusion is wrongly justified by the same logic – it is said that the excluded group itself doesn’t wish to participate. The truth of such an argument is not obvious when we say that exclusion is preventing access to something desirable. Prolonged experience of discriminatory or insulting behaviour often produces a reaction that socially excluded people may no longer desire to be included.
For example, upper caste Hindu communities have often denied entry into temples for the lower castes and specially the Dalits. After the decades of such treatment, the dalits may build their own temple or change their religion in Buddhism, Christianity or Islam thus reducing the desire to enter those temples.
But this does not mean that social discrimination has been ended. The point is that the exclusion happens regardless of the desires of the excluded.
Social Exclusion in India
India like most societies has been marked by actual practices of social discrimination and exclusion.
Discrimination and exclusion was faced by even the most privileged Indians at the hands of British and colonial state. These traits were common to the various socially discriminated groups such as women, dalits, and other oppressed castes and tribes.
Faced with the humiliation of colonial rule and simultaneously exposed to ideas of democracy and justice, many Indians initiated and participated in a large number of social reform movements.
The four groups who have suffered from serious social inequality and exclusion include Dalits or ex-untouchable castes, adivasis or communities referred to a tribal communities, women and differently-abled.
Apart from these four groups there are two more groups included in this category. There were:
(i) Transgender : It refers to the conversions of gender status of body into opposite gender by using choice or certain compulsions. By using surgical process, male body can be converted into female body and vice versa.
(ii) Third Gender : This third gender refers to that social category of persons who are neither male nor female. The third gender of the person is based on self-understanding or made up by group choice. In India, people third gender have legal recognition and can nominate themselves to contest in elections. (Parliament/Assembly/Local Government).
In history, protest movements against caste, gender and discrimination or religion played a major role. And pertaining to these many legislations were passed.
But, legislations alone is not able to transform society or produce lasting social change. A constant social campaign to create awareness and sensitivity is required to abolish them.
Systems Justifying and Perpetuating Inequality
The Caste System as a Discriminatory System
The caste system is a distinct Indian social institution that legitmises and enforces practices of discrimination against people born into particular castes. These practices of discrimination are humiliating, exclusionary and exploitative.
The caste system classified people by their occupation. Every caste was associated with an occupation. Moreover, each caste had a specific place in their hierarchy of the social status. For example, the ritually higher caste – the Brahmins – were not allowed to gather wealth, and were subordinate to the secular powers of kings and rulers belonging to the Kshatriya castes. On the other side, despite having the highest secular status and power, the king was subordinated to the Brahmin in the ritual religious sphere.
Historically, there was fairly close correlation between social and economic status-the ‘high’ castes were almost invariably of high economic status, while the ‘low’ castes were almost always of low economic status. Since, the nineteenth century, the link between caste and occupation became much less rigid.
Ritual-religious prohibitions on occupational change are not easily imposed today, and one can easily change one’s occupation. Moreover, compared to a hundred or fifty years ago, the correlation between caste and economic status is also weaker with rich and poor people in every caste.
But the caste-class correlation is still remarkably stable at the macro level. As the system has become less rigid, the distinctions between castes of broadly similar social and economic status have weakened. Yet between different socio-economic grouping, the distinctions continue to be maintained.
It is still true that the privileged (and high economic status) sections of society tend to be overwhelmingly ‘upper’ caste while the disadvantaged (and low economic status) sections are the so called ‘lower’ castes.
Moreover, the proportion of population that livers in poverty or affluence differs greatly across caste groups.
In short, even though there have been major changes brought about by social movements over more than a century and despite the changed modes of production as attempt by the state to suppress in public role in independent India, caste continues to affect the life chances of Indians even today.
‘Untouchability’ is an extreme and particularly vicious aspect of the caste system that prescribes stringent social sanctions against members of castes located at the bottom of the purity-population scale.
The ‘untouchable’ castes lie outside the caste hierarchy, as they are considered to be so ‘impure’ that their only touch pollutes members of the other castes, bringing terrible punishment for them and forcing the so called pure caste people to perform elaborate purification rituals.
In fact, notions of ‘distance pollution’ existed in many regions of India particularly in the South such that even the presence of the shadow of an ‘untouchable’ person was considered polluting. Despite the limited literal meaning of this world, the institution of ‘untouchability’ refers not just to the avoidance or prohibition of physical contact but to a much broader set of social sanctions.
The three main dimensions of untouchability namely; exclusion, humiliation-subordination and exploitation – are all equally important in defining the phenomenon. Although other low castes also face subordination and exploitation to some degree, they do not suffer the extreme forms of exclusion reserved for ‘untouchables’.
- Dalits experience forms of exclusion that are unique and not practised against other groups.
- For instance , being prohibited from sharing drinking water sources or participating in collective religious worship, social ceremonies and festivals.
At the same time, untouchability may also involve forced ‘inclusion’ in a subordinated role, such as beating the drum in a religious event.
The acts of self humiliation and self subordination are important practices of untouchability. For example, imposition of gesture of deference (such as taking off headgear, carrying shoes in hand, not wearing clean or bright clothes and standing with bowed head), routined abuse and humiliation.
- Untouchability is almost always associated with economic exploitation of various kinds, most commonly through the imposition of forced, unpaid labour, or the confiscation of property. The so called ‘untouchables’ have been referred to collectively by many names over the centuries.
Whatever the specific etymology (history of words) of these names, they are all derogatory (expressive of low opinion) and carry a strongly pejorative (degrading) charge. In fact many of them continue to be used as forms of abuse even today, although their use is now a criminal offence.
Mahatma Gandhi has popularised the term ‘Harijan’ which literally means ‘children of God’ in 1930. He used this term to counter the pejorative charge carried by caste names.
However, the ex-untouchable communities and their leaders have coined the term ‘Dalit’, which is now the generally accepted term for referring to these groups. In Indian context, the term ‘Dalit’ literally means ‘downtrodden’ and conveys the sense of an oppressed people. Dr. Ambedkar did not uses this term frequently and the term certainly resonates (echo or resound) with his philosophy and the movement for empowerment that he led. The Dalit Panthers, a radical group that emerged in Western Indian during 1970s, used the term to assert their identity as part of their struggle for rights and dignity.
Initiatives Addressing Caste and Tribe Discrimination
The Indian state has had special programmes for the Schedule Tribes and Schedule Castes since even before independence. The ‘Schedules’ listing the castes and tribes recognised as deserving of special treatment because of the massive discrimination practiced against them were drawn up in 1935, by the British Indian Government.
After Independence, the same policies have been continued with many new one added. Among the most significant additions is the extension of special programmes to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) since the early 1990s.
Some of the initiatives taken after independence were:
(a) The most important state initiative attempting to compensate for past and present caste discrimination is known as reservations. These include reservation of seats in the State and Central legislatures (i.e. State Assemblies, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha), reservation of jobs and seats in government service across all departments and public sector companies and in Schedule Tribes. The proportion of reserved seats is equal to the percentage share of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in the total population. But for OBC this proportion is decided differently.
(b) A number of laws passed to end, prohibit and punish caste discrimination, specially untouchability. One of the earliest such laws was the Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850, which disallowed the curtailment of rights of citizens due solely to change of religion or caste. The most recent such law was the Constitution Amendment (Ninety-Third Amendment) Act of 2005, which became a law on 23rd June, 2006. Coincidentally, both the 1850 law and the 2006 amendment are related to education.
(c) The 93rd Amendment is introduced reservation for Other Backward Classes in institutions of higher education, while the 1850 Act was used to allows entry of Dalits to government schools. In between, there have been other laws such as the Constitution of India itself, passed in 1950, and the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. The Constitution abolished untouchability (Article 17) and introduced the reservation provisions.
(d) The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act revised and strengthened the legal provisions punishing acts of violence or humiliation against Dalits and Adivasis.
State action alone cannot ensure social change. Human beings are always capable of organising and acting on their own against odds to struggle for justice and dignity.
From pre-independence struggles and movements, launched by people like Jyotiba Phule, Iyotheedas, Periyar, Ambedkar and others to contemporary political organisations like Bhujan Samaj Party or Dalit Sangharsh Samiti of Karnataka, Dalit political assertion has come to a long way.
Dalits have also made significant contributions to literature in several Indian languages, specially Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.
The Other Backward Classes
Apart from the untouchables there were large group of castes of low status who were also subjected to varying levels of discrimination. These were the service and artisanal castes who occupied the lower ranks of the caste hierarchy. The Constitution of India recognises the possibility that there may be groups other than the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes who suffer from social disadvantages.
All these groups are based not on caste alone but were described as the ‘socially and educationally backward classes’. This gives constitutional basis to ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBC) which are common today.
OBC are neither part of the ‘forward’ castes at the upper end of the status spectrum, nor of the Dalits at the lower end. But since caste has entered all the major Indian religions and is not confined to Hinduism alone, there are also members of other religions who belong to the backward castes and share the traditional occupational identification and similar or worse socio-economic status. For these reasons, the OBCs are much more diverse group than the Dalits or adivasis.
The first government of independent India under Jawaharlal Nehru appointed a commission for the welfare of the OBCs. The First Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar submitted its report in 1953.
From the mid-fifties, the OBC issue became a regional affair pursued at the state level rather than central level. The Southern states had a long history of backward caste political agitation that had started in the early 20th century.
Because of these powerful social movements, policies to address the problems of the OBCs were in place long before they were discussed in most Northern states. The OBCs issue returned to the central level in the late 1970s after the Emergency when the Janata Party came to power. The Second Backward Classes Commission headed by the BP Mandal was appointed at this time.
It was only 1990 when the Central Government decided to implement the ten-year old Mandal Commission report, that the OBC issue became central in national politics. Since the 1990s, we have seen the resurgence of lower caste movements in North India, among both the OBCs and Dalits.
The politicisation of the OBCs allows them to convert their large numbers at votes, into political influence. Ths was not possible at the national level before, as shown by the sidelining of Kalelkar Commission report.
The large disputes between the upper OBCs (largely landed castes who enjoy dominance in rural society) and the lower OBCs (very poor and disadvantaged) make this a difficult political category to work with. However, the OBCs are severely under represented in all spheres except landholding and political representation.
Although the upper OBCs are dominant in the rural sector, the situation of urban OBCs is much worse, being much closer to that of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes than to the upper castes.
Indian Constitution marked Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe as the people who were poverty driven, powerless and face social stigma. The jana or tribes were believed to be ‘the people of the forest’ or the distinctive habitants of the hill and forest areas who shape their economic, social and political attributes.
Tribal groups have had long and close association with Hindu society and culture, blurring between tribe and caste.
The migration of adivasi populations from one area to another created many complications. Excluding the North-Eastern states, there are no areas of the country that are inhabited exclusively by tribal people, there are only areas of tribal concentration.
Since the middle of the 19th century , non-tribals have moved into the tribal districts of central India, while tribal people from the same districts have migrated to plantations, mines, factories and other places of employment.
In the areas where tribal populations are concentrated, their economic and social conditions are usually much worse than those of non-tribals. The impoverished and exploited circumstances under which adivasis live can be traced historically to the pattern of accelerated resource extraction started by the colonial British government and continued by the government of independent India.
Form the late 19th century onwards, the colonial government reserved most forest tracts for its own use, severing the rights that adivasis had long exercised to use the forest for gathering produce for shifting cultivation. Forests were now to be protected for maximising timber production.
With this policy, the mainstay of their livelihoods was taken away from adivasis, rendering their their lives poorer and more insecure. Denied access to forests and land for cultivation, adivasis were forced to either use the forests illegally (and be harassed and prosecuted as ‘encroachers’ and thieves) or migrate in search of wage labour.
We may believe that, independence of India made the life of adivasis easy but it is not true. They have faced two major issues:
(i) The government monopoly over forests continued and the exploitation accelerated.
(ii) The policy of capital-intensive industrialisation adopted by government required minerals and power generation capacities which were in Adivasi area.
Adivasi lands were rapidly acquired for new mining and dam projects. In the process, millions of adivasis were displaced without any appropriate compensation or rehabilitation.
Justified in the name of ‘national development’ and ‘economic growth’ these policies were also a form of internal colonisation, subjugating adivasis and alienating the resources upon which they depended. Projects such as the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada in Western Indian and Polavaram dam on the river Godavari in Andhra Pradesh may displace hundred of thousands of adivasis, driving them to greater destitution. These processes have become even more powerful since the 1990s when economic liberalisation policies were officially adopted by the Indian Government.
The term ‘Adivasi’ connotes political awareness and the assertion of rights. Literally meaning ‘original inhabitants’, the term was coined in the 1930s as part of the struggle against the intrusion by the colonial government and outside settlers and moneylenders. Being Adivasis is about shared experiences of the loss of forests, the alienation of land, repeated displacements since independence in the name of ‘development projects’ and much more.
In spite of the heavy odds against them and their marginalised situation, many tribal groups have been waging in struggles against outsiders (called dikus) and the state. In post-indpendence India, the most significant achievement of Adivasi movements include the attainment of statehood for Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Struggle for Women’s Equality and Right
Due to the evident biological and physical differences between men and women, gender inequality is often treated as natural. However, it has been accepted this inequality is social rather than natural. Gender then more than just biological and physical differences, it is much like the social inequality and exclusion like caste and class with it’s own specific features.
The middle class social reform movements of the 19th century brought the women’s question into the limelight. The nature of these movements varied from region to region. They are often termed as middle class reform movements because many of these reformers were from the newly emerging Western educated Indian middle class. They were often inspired by the democratic ideals of the modern West and by a deep pride in their own democratic traditions of past. Many used both these resources to fight for women’s right. Some of the activist revolutionaries who fought for the rights of the women, are as follows:
Raja Rammohun Roy
Raja Rammohun Roy’s attempts to reform society, religion and the status of women can be taken as the starting point of 19th century social reform in Bengal. A decade before establishing the Brahmo Samaj in 1828 Roy took over the campaign against ‘sati’ which was the first women’s issue to receive public attention. Rammohun thus, attacked the practice of sati on the basis of appeals to humanitarian and natural rights doctrines as well as Hindu Shastras. Rammohun Roy’s ideas represented a curious mixture of Western rationality and an assertion of Indian traditionality.
Ranade rose his voice against the deplorable and unjust treatment of the Hindu upper caste widows. Ranade used the writings of scholars such as Bishop Joseph Butler whose analogy of religion and three sermons on human nature dominated the moral philosophy syllabus of Bombay University in 1860s. He was known for his writings entitled “The Texts of the Hindu Law on the Lawfulness of the Remarriage of Widows and Vedic Authorities for Widow Marriage.” The book represents the shastric sanction for remarriage of widows.
Coming from the socially excluded caste Jyotiba Phule attacked both caste and gender discrimination.
He founded the Satyashodak Samaj with its primary emphasis on truth seeking. Phule’s first practical social reform efforts were to aid the two groups considered lowest in traditional Brahmin culture i.e. women and untouchables.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan
On the basis of both modern Western ideas as well as the sacred texts Sir Syed Ahmed Khan tried to reform Muslim society. He wanted girls to be educated, but within the zones of their homes. He stood for women’s education but proposed a curriculum that included instruction in religious principles, training in the arts of housekeeping and handcrafts and rearing of children.
Usually, it is assumed that any social reform for women’s rights came from the male reformers and the very ideas of women’s equality are alien imports. However, that is not true. The books namely, Stree Purush Tulna written in 1882 and Sultanas Dream written in 1905 showed us the real picture.
Stree Purush Tulna (1882) was written was a Maharashtrian housewife, Tarabai Shinde, as a protest against the double standards of a male dominated society. A young Brahmin widow had been sentenced to death by the courts for killing her newborn baby because it was illegitimate, but no effort had been made to identify or punish the man who had fathered the baby.
Sultana’s Dream (1905) was written by Begum Rokeya Sakhaat Hossain who was a successful author in Urdu and Bengali. It was a short story and the earliest example of science fiction writing in India which is among the first written by a woman author anywhere in the world.
In her dream , Sultana visits a magical country where the gender roles are reversed. Men are confined to the home and observe purdah while women are busy scientists competing with each other at inventing devices that will control the clouds and regulate rain and machines that fly on air-cars.
Apart from feminist visionaries, various women organisations emerged in India and the world that began participating in women’s rights.
In 1931 , the Karachi Session of Indian National Congress issued a declaration on the Fundamental Rights of Citizenship to enforce women equality.
The important points of this declaration were:
(a) All citizens are equal fore the law, irrespective of religion, caste, creed or sex.
(b) No disability attaches to any citizen by reason of his or her religion, caste, creed or sex, in regard to public employment, office of power or honour and in the exercise of any trade or calling.
(c) The franchise shall be on the basis of Universal Adult Suffrage.
(d) Women shall have the right to vote, to represent and the right to hold public offices.
In 1970, the women’s issues re-emerged. In 19th century, reforms were emphasised on backward aspects of tradition like sati, child marriage or ill treatment of widows. In 1970s, the emphasis was on modern issues such as , the rape of women in police custody, dowry murders, representation of women in popular media and gender inequality.
The law was a major issue for reform in the 1980s and after. It was found that many laws of concern to women had not been changed since the 19th century.
Keeping all these things in mind, in 21st century, new sites of gender injustice are emerging.
The sharp fall in the child sex-ratio and the implicit social bias against the girl child represents one of the new challenges of gender inequality.
Thus, we may say that any social change be it for women’s rights or other, battle is never won once and for all. It is something that goes very long with new issues emerging time and again.
The Struggles of the Disabled
The differently abled are not ‘disabled’, only because they are physically or mentally ‘impaired’ but also society is built in a manner that doesn’t cater to their needs. It is important to think about ‘disabled’, because the public perception of disabled needs to be questioned.
Features of Disabled
Some common features central to the public perception of ‘disability’ all over the world are:
(a) Disability is understood as a biological event.
(b) Whenever a disabled person is confronted with problems, it is believed that the problems originate due to his/her impairment.
(c) The disabled person is seen as a victim.
(d) Disability is supposed to be linked with the disabled individual’s self perception.
(e) The idea of disability suggests that they are in need of help.
In India, the terms ‘disabled’, ‘handicap’, ‘crippled’, ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ are used synonymously. The common perception views disability as retribution for past karma (actions) from which there can be no reprieve. The dominant cultural construction in India therefore looks at disability as essentially a characteristic of the individual.
The term ‘disabled’ challenges each of these assumptions. Terms such as ‘mentally challenged’, ‘visually impaired’ and ‘physically impaired’ came to replace the more negative terms such as ‘retarted’, ‘crippled’, or ‘lame’. The disabled are rendered disabled not because they are biologically disabled but because society renders them so.
Disability and Poverty
The social construction of disability has yet another dimension. Disability and poverty play a very crucial role and have a close relationship. Malnutrition, mothers weakened by frequent childbirth, inadequate immunisation programmes and accidents in overcrowded homes, all contribute to an incidence of disability among poor people.
Further, disability creates and increases poverty by increasing isolation and economic strain, not just for the individual but for the family.
Recently, with the efforts of the disabled themselves some awareness is created in the society on the need to rethink disability. Previously, recognition of disability was absent from the wider educational discourse. This is evident from the historical practices within the educational system that continue to marginalise the issue of disability by maintaining two separate streams one for disabled students and one for everyone else. But now we can see the more learning related to disability.
We have seen that caste, tribe, gender and disability as institutions that generate and perpetuate inequalities and exclusion. However, they also provoke struggles against these inequalities. Historically, the understanding of inequality in the social sciences has been dominated by ideas of class, race and gender. It is only later that the complexities of other categories like caste, tribe and gender are now getting the attention they deserve. But there remain categories that are still in need of attention, such as those who are marginalised by religion or by a combination of categories. More complex formations like groups defined by religion and caste, gender and religion, or caste and region are likely to claim our attention in the near future, as shown, e.g. by the Sachar Committee Report on Muslim community.
Concern of Education for Disabled Child
In a country where half the children in the age group of 5-14 are out of school how can there be space for children with disabilities, especially if a segregated schooling is being advocated for them? Even if the legislation optimistically tries to make education available to every disabled child, parents in a village do not see this as instrumental in achieving any autonomy for their disabled child. What they would prefer is perhaps a better way of fetching water from the well and improved agricultural facilities. Similarly, parents in an urban slum expect education to be related to a world of work that would enhance their child’s basic quality of life.