A new word has been added to the government lingo in India. The current Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, uttered the word divyang and coined a new meaning for it. Divyang is a Hindi word meaning the one with a divine body. The Prime Minister said that persons with disabilities should no longer be referred to as disabled persons or viklang. The word viklang is Hindi for someone with non-functional body parts. They should now be referred to as divyang or divyangjan This new connotation of the word is absolutely unacceptable.
Before going any further, let me be clear that I do not doubt the intention of the P.M. It is not uncommon in India to emotionally go overboard without giving much thought to the matter. I believe that the P.M. just wanted to elevate the level of Indian disabled people by getting rid of a negative term (viklang) used for them. However, he did not realized that by using the term divyang — he raised the level a bit too much and made the disabled people look like non-humans! Moreover, I am also not sure if the P.M. really wanted this word to be used officially. He just uttered this word during a speech — but the political managers, bureaucrats and media immediately took it a command from the P.M. that must be immediately obeyed. As a result, the word divyang instantly became the official Hindi word to refer to the disabled people.
What’s wrong with divyang?
It is easy to see what’s wrong. As I mentioned earlier, divyang literally means someone with divine body. But what’s so divine about a disabled person? The word divyang has no logic whatsoever. It does not match with how modern society see and deal with disability. My foreigner friends could actually make fun of this word: “Oh really Lalit! They think you’re divine because you’re a polio survivor?! Come on, buddy, gimme a break!”
Unfortunately, in India, disabled people are often seen as a way to please the gods. General public believe that people are disabled because of bad deeds they did in their previous life. Also, it is believed that gods love those who help the weak because weaker people are considered to be close-to-gods. This is the root cause why this new meaning of the word divyang came into existence and this is also why this new meaning is wrong.
Disabled people are just as human as anybody. Giving support to views like sins of previous lives and closeness to gods is a regressive approach. Government should in fact be working to educate public that just about anybody can become disabled and disability does not take away humanity or the status-of-being-human. Yes, it is easy to feel pleased about one’s own good self by thinking that the other person is suffering because she is a sinner of previous life. Yes, its a sure-shot approach to feel good — but it is also a very stupid approach.
From what I understand, the Indian P.M. said that disabled people are endowed with extra qualities and they can perform extraordinary deeds. He said that “Something or the other keeps crossing my mind. Randomly, I thought that people who have some weakness or god has not given all the body parts functional are called handicapped but God has gifted them with unseen additional powers. God has infused extra powers in them. These powers are not visible to us but when we see these special people at work we realize their abundant potential.” [Source]
I have bold-faced certain words in the above quote. All these words are objectionable because these words takes away the right of being ordinary from the disabled people. In another WeCapable article, Alokita has very well pointed out why disabled people also need the right of being perfectly ordinary. So, I will not go in more details here.
Society does not need to see disabled people as gods or demons. We just need to understand that disability is a circumstance that can affect anybody, anywhere, anytime. We need to work towards mitigating the effect of disability on a person’s life. No disabled person would want to have a status of a divine being — all they want is equal opportunities, accessible infrastructure and understanding from the society.
Instead of developing accessible infrastructure and educating the public, if a government will begin to ask people to see divinity in disabled people — then this approach will not bear any desirable fruit.
There has been all sorts of debates around the world about which words should be used to refer to certain people. Whether to call gay or homosexual; handicapped or disabled or person with disability; dumb or mute — there have been debates on these word related matters. Any public organization comprehensively debate before adopting a word to refer to certain people. Because it matters!
I wonder if such deliberations were held before blatantly adopting divyang for official use? Were there any linguists involved in those deliberations? Was there any representation from the disabled people? If yes, would the government care to disclose who all were consulted and what were their opinions? Was there absolutely nobody who opposed the use of this word divyang?
Words cast a great impact on public psyche. The practice of using senseless words like divyang actually harms the progress towards an inclusive equal-for-society.