beyond the binary of ability and disability


ability (n.) late 14c., “state or condition of being able; capacity to do or act,” from Old French ableté “ability (to inherit),” from Latin habilitatem (nominative habilitas, in Medieval Latin abilitas) “aptitude, ability,” noun of quality from habilis “easy to manage, handy”. Also in Middle English, “suitableness, fitness.” Abilities “one’s talents or mental endowments” is from 1580s.

In truth, the eight billion people in the world are abled in different ways. The term differently abled therefore should ideally describe the entire population. No two persons are the same, or have the same ability.

the Us and Them conundrum

Classification comes, often as an essential skill, as cognitive abilities develop in humans. It, however, can also lead to binary thinking, which pits two opposites against each other and also includes the implicit hierarchical assumption that one of the two is inherently more valuable than the other.

True binary opposites, more common in natural sciences, are mutually exclusive, north-south, hot-cold, plus-minus, but even with these seemingly polar opposites there are gradients between these extremes.

I was struck by what I read in an article I recently read titled “The Red Pill or the Blue Pill? Transcending Binary Thinking” by Susan P Robbins, where she says, and I quote:

“It is important to note that binary thinking extends beyond the physical sciences and informs our understanding of social reality. Acceptance of and reliance on binary opposites not only creates boundaries between groups of people, it also posits that one group is superior to the other. Not surprisingly, this easily can lead to prejudice, discrimination, and oppressive policies and practices toward the less favoured group.

In the world we inhabit, we consciously and unconsciously attempt to classify individuals and groups of people, situating them at two discrete ends — right-wrong, us–them, black–white, gay–straight, oppressed–oppressor, mentally ill-normal, able-bodied- disabled. Unfortunately, much of our learning in school and early social experiences reinforce these binaries.

a spectrum and a non-hierarchical continuum

The realisation that the reality is not black or white, but with several shades of grey, hits home only through life’s experiences.

The fact is if we were to rate ourselves on the ability scale, with ability and disability at two ends of the spectrum, we will find ourselves somewhere in between, sliding across the scale at different points in time.

It is therefore curious that despite differences in abilities being the rule than the exception, we grow up not acknowledging them. And when confronted with life situations, we are often paralysed and struggle with our responses.

There are temporary conditions of ability or disability caused by accidents, ailments, physical and mental stressors, from which one recovers to greater or lesser degrees.

And there are more permanent conditions, that we are born with, or conditions we encounter in course of our lives, which affect our physical and mental wellness.

What also needs to be understood is that physical health and mental health are intertwined, and each affects the other.

There is also the inescapable fact that as we grow older, several of our faculties get challenged in different ways.

For a majority of the population, disability — physical or mental — leads to confinement, isolation and exclusion from most common activities and spaces, simply on account of their design limitations (which can be overcome through better design), and also worryingly due to associated social stigma (which is harder to overcome).

If anything the reference to persons with disabilities as divyang-jan (persons with ‘divine body parts’) only goes to exacerbate the divide, rather than create greater inclusion.

an attempt to understand

In medical parlance persons with disabilities refers to persons suffering from not less than 40% of any disability as certified by a designated medical board.

Persons with disability face multiple challenges each day — physical, social and economic. Families and communities often consider them a ‘burden’, and physical access barriers confront them on an everyday basis.

With these barriers, several of them do not undergo schooling or any formal education and are unable to join gainful employment, being forced to lead a life of economic dependence.

Most of them suffer poor health as their health conditions often need specific attention and access to specialised medical help and affordability are both barriers, which leaves their specific conditions untreated.

persons with disabilities in India: an unverified count

The last count of persons with disability in India comes from the Census of India, 2011, which counts approximately 26.8 million people, nearly 2.22% of the total population. Of these, around 18.7 million people (69%) reside in rural areas and 8.1 million people (31%) in urban areas. In terms of broad differentiation of abilities persons with locomotive disability (20.3%) are the most, followed by hearing impaired (18.9%), visually impaired (18.8%), speech impaired (7.5%), mentally challenged (5.6%), mentally ill (2.7%) and persons with multiple disabilities (7.9%). 45% of persons with disability are illiterate, compared to 26% of all Indians. All is data ofcourse is over a decade old!

The NHFDC recently brought out a publication titled “Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan) in India — A Statistical Profile : 2021”. All data in the report ironically is from the 2011 census!

With the enactment of Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 in India, the types of disabilities have been increased from 7 to 21 disabilities. There has been no systematic enumeration of persons with disabilities after the extension in the list of disabilities. It is estimated that the present count of Persons with Disabilities in India could be anywhere between 50 to 80 million.

While the Unique Disability ID (UDID) project was launched by Government of Indiain 2016, the DEPwD made it mandatory for states to issue disability certificates through the UDID portal from June 1, 2021, as opposed to the offline mode. So far, 7,206,947 UDID cards had been issued, implying that the benefits, meagre as they are, reach only a small percentage of the total. Total allocations specific to persons with disabilities for the year 2022–23 is Rs. 2,172 crore (~ 0.0084 per cent of GDP, a fall from 0.0093 per cent of GDP in 2021–22), a paltry allocation of less than Rs.1000 per person even if we consider the 2011 count of persons with disabilities! The recent NFHS report vastly undercounts persons with disabilities, with implications on their access to social welfare, explained in this article.

I tried to understand the cumbersome process of registering for and getting a UDID, and the reasons for the low coverage, which resulted in this paper.

imagine! another world is possible

A change in minds is of critical importance in imagining a more inclusive world, as Sakshi discusses in her opening blog in this bloghop series.

Fundamental shifts that could normalise and make us more accepting of our differences will need us to reimagine

…. schooling, including what we learn, how we learn, how our learning is assessed, proactively encouraging diversity of all kinds

…. public and common spaces, parks, playgrounds, etc., to be open and accessible to all

…. affordable and appropriate assistive technology, customised to individual needs, can play a huge role in improving quality of life of persons with different types and levels of disability.

…. good quality health services and affordable healthcare will go a long way in early detection, treatment and continued follow-up

… design of cities, buildings, transport, recognising the diverse needs of persons with different abilities.

What we need are small measures, recognising and nurturing the abilities of all, leading to big strides towards empathetic and supportive communities.

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This post is a part of “International Day of Disabled Persons” blog hop hosted by Sakshi Varma — Tripleamommy in collaboration with Bookosmia. #IDPD2022Bloghop. Access all posts of this bloghop at



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