Disability and the culture of violence

Tue 07 Feb 2017

Disability has been one the end results of violence historically. Since ancient times, numerous wars have been fought and entire civilisations have been destroyed. The end results of every war has been seen in binaries like ‘victory’ and ‘loss’, ‘life’ and ‘death’, ‘pride’ and ‘humiliation’. But, one binary which generally escapes attention of war historians is ‘able-bodiness’ and ‘disability’.

War emancipates the potentially strong and drains the essentially weak. But overall, it limits the potential of a person either for a short term or for a long term. This potential is purely biological at first, where a part of the body loses its usual ability to function properly. But afterwards it transforms into the loss of ‘social potential’ where a person due to his/her disability is not accepted in the mainstream society and hence the real potential of the person is not realised.

As a result, persons with disabilities become a victim of ‘pervasive violence’. Johan Galtung, who is the father of peace studies, defined pervasive violence as “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. Violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual and that which impedes the decrease of this distance.”

Galtung’s idea broadens the understanding of our everyday notions of violence — i.e. the direct, deliberate physical harm by one actor towards another. Violence pervades the social spaces because it is inherently pervasive in nature. It impacts everyone but so more so to persons with disabilities because their ‘physical potential’ is construed for life and hence the gap between what the potential of an able-bodied person and a differently-abled person is widened. The more the gap, the more is the violence.

Process of ‘othering’

It differs from society to society because of different levels of stigmatisation of disabled people in different societies. Some do the ‘othering’ of disabled population from the mainstream, leading to their double exploitation, firstly due to their limited physical potential and secondly the societal discrimination that arises after becoming physically disabled. This violence is highly structural in nature.

This structural violence becomes more widespread where a large disabled population lives. This structural violence has two types, one where a large disabled population exists due to some war or natural disaster, the other case being where no ‘war’ has been fought but many people by birth are disabled. Take the example of any country torn by war, such as Syria. The civil war has left nearly a million people with permanent disabilities. The level of violence in Syria today is unparalleled. The potential of the entire society and country has been reduced to its lowest. The word ‘violence’ here does not just refer to the continuous bombings and firings during the war, but also when guns are not firing, violence still exists.

The other example can be taken where a large disabled population lives in a war-free or conflict-free zone. For example, India has 26.8 million disabled people as per the 2011 Census. Here the disabled population is one of the most marginalised sections of the country and also one of the largest minority groups, though disability is yet to be formally recognised as a ‘minority group’ in the country. In India, one can see that the gap between the realised potential of a person with disabilities and that of an able-bodied person is huge. Discrimination in itself is a kind of violence; one would find that in plenty in India where representation of disabled people in all sectors of the economy is extremely low. In most cases, employers deny a job to a disabled person by uttering their usual catchphrase, “not found suitable for work”.

This leads to a high rate of unemployment among the disabled, and most of their expectations to live a decent life are left unsatisfied, leading to non-realisation of potential within. This is the result of ‘structural violence’ of society towards the disabled, where violence is not seen on the face of it like ‘personal violence’ does. It creates an environment of ‘negative peace’ within a society.

A separate peace

Negative peace refers to the absence of violence. When, for example, a ceasefire is enacted, a negative peace will ensue. It is negative because something undesirable stopped happening (e.g. the violence stopped, the oppression ended). Whereas positive peace is filled with positive content such as restoration of relationships, the creation of social systems that serve the needs of the whole population and the constructive resolution of conflict.

In the context of disability, one can safely conclude that societies which have more disabled people have more ‘negative peace’ than those which have fewer disabled people. This is because the stigma attached with disability leads to the marginalisation of disabled people as a result of structural violence. The reverse is also true that violent societies have more disabled people than peaceful societies. Disability and attitudes towards the disabled are markers of the level of violence within societies.

Throughout history, physical punishment has been inflicted upon people by making them disabled by cutting off the limbs, tearing out the eyes, cutting their tongue, etc. Secondly, those who were already disabled by birth have been seen as those who had committed some grave sin in their previous birth so as to be born disabled in this birth. This logic of previous birth sin leads to the legitimisation of discrimination and hatred towards persons with disabilities across cultures. Hence, a ‘culture of violence’ is born and is legitimised further.

In every sphere, a disabled person’s life is pervaded with violence in some form or the other, the magnitude of this violence might differ, but its existence can’t be denied.

Martand Jha is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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