Geographies of Disability – India

by Michelle Brooks

Recent headlines in India about a disabled boy who was refused entry to a temple have raised questions around the wider problem of social stigma concerning disability in India. Temple authorities in Mysore, south-west India are reported to have forcibly removed the wheel-chair bound boy and his family later claiming that issues of access and language barriers had precipitated this action. The numbers of people living with disabilities in India could be as high as 90 million (World Bank 2007), however, due to the stigma attached to disability in India this number is contested. Political will to improve the social and economic wellbeing of disabled people is evidenced in for example, landmark legislation to protect the disabled (1995) and ratification of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (2006) yet despite this many Indian states have failed to implement policy requirements and guidelines in this area.

It can be argued that implementing such policies is greatly hampered by lingering social reluctance to accept disabled people as legitimate actors in public space, forcing them to live on the margins of mainstream society experiencing a greater degree of poverty and social exclusion than others in their age /regional/caste or class grouping. Additionally disabled women are severely disadvantaged further by disability, through vulnerability to various forms of abuse and then often also lose the right to care for their children (UN Enable 2006). Much work has been done in geography on disability issues and the social separation experienced as a result. In an interesting article for Area, Edward Hall (2004) highlights social exclusion of the disabled but then problematises social exclusion policy, drawing attention to the focus on employment as a method of ‘inclusion’  in UK policy which does not address the social support that can be gained through the informal sector.  Likewise in India, policy reflects state logic the implementation of which (or lack of) in turn is a reflection of wider societal stigma. Categorising disability in India largely occurs in childhood and is determined as a condition whereby the person suffers less than 40% in any ability, a certificate is issued and the disability is rarely assessed again (Ministry of Law and Justice 1996). This hints at the assumption by the state that the disability is fixed and the problems associated with it lie in stasis throughout the persons life course. It is therefore regarded as a condition arising from the persons being or natural state, rather than polysemic or changeable and indeed having a life course of its own.

In diseases such as Polio in which symptoms worsen with time and Cerebral Palsy where assessment must take place over time until adulthood policy implementation presents the disabled person with a serious disadvantage. The aligning of the characteristics of the disability with that of the problems experienced by the individual absolves society of social impacts felt by the disabled such as abuse, exclusion, employment discrimination or educational shortfalls. This fatalist approach perpetuates commonly held perceptions in the public consciousness that disability is an affliction brought about by moral or religious shortcomings.  The headline story was in fact about someone with cerebral palsy, where sadly the ocular symptoms of the disease can mask a fully active and able mind, one for whom exclusion from the cultural and spiritual stimulus of a temple  (as sought by the parents in this case) is indeed a great injustice.


  1. An excellent and informative piece. It is refreshing to see a focus on a social issue that is not often very visible in India.

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