Don't clap for the handicap

This was during our graduation ceremony from UT Austin, for our College of Natural Sciences. Inside the grand ceremony with the tassels hanging from the right side of the hat, we were having our traditional walk through the podium. You would stand in a queue with your classmates, your name would be called, you would walk across the stage where the Dean of the school would honour you with a hood or band across your shoulders or chest, and then you get your picture taken with the Dean and you move on. To maintain civility and also to make sure that everyone's name is heard during the announcements, people were generally asked to hold on to their applause until after the ceremony was over. This indeed was the case - it was very calm and quiet all through the presentation with smiling faces and the voice of the announcer booming through the speakers. Except, this one time...

There was this one guy, on a wheelchair. It looked like he had to go through a large part of his adult life on that, including his Masters degree at the university. He had to bypass the line to go up the ramp for the handicapped, and waited patiently in the shadows until his name was called. He rolled his motorized wheelchair forward, reached the Dean, raised himself a little with some difficulty, and then finally got the hood around his neck. The applause had actually started right when he too had started moving across the stage. By the time he reached the dean, the clapping had reached fever pitch. Not just the audience, who were of course standing up by now, but some of the faculty as well (or it might have been all of them - I'm not sure). I hated it.

I hated it because I saw this look of well-meaning pity and vicarious self-gloating on all their faces. I saw them nodding their heads with pursed lips and evident pride as if they saw a hero returning victorious from a battle. And it was disgusting because they did not seem to realize that they were actually insulting the person's intellect and intelligence. Yes he was on a wheelchair and could not walk. So what? Does that make him stupid? Did his handicap, in any way, affect his ability to comprehend what was being taught in class or his ability to type and submit his homework on time? Was he not able to take tests because he had frequent epileptic fits and wasn't granted any extensions on his test taking time?

My objection is with the overdose of humanity that we try to show off at every given opportunity. While it is good to have an accommodating and equal-rights culture for everyone, this act of ignorance perhaps actually belittled his achievement. By clapping for him, you conveyed the message that he would not have been able to do this on his own, under "normal" circumstances. I tell you, out of my own convictions, that the last thing anyone with any kind of handicap want is to be treated "special". A necessity is different. I would hold open a door for the same guy when he is entering or exiting a building, because trying to prop a auto-closing door open while you pull and push your wheelchair through is an obstacle. But studying, really? Did his brains live in his calf muscles which are now semi-defunct? How would I celebrate this grand occasion of passing out with a graduate degree with him? Like with any other of my friends! Go to some party, have a few nostalgic rounds of beer or coffee about the courses we hated and the teachers we liked. But I wouldn't mention to him, "Oh yes special kudos to him since you got your Masters' degree in spite of not having fully functional legs".

I hold similar views about womens' reservation  in the parliament and general SC/ST reservations. Let us create an equal playing field for everyone. Let us make sure that there isn't discrimination against a woman entering the parliament just because she is a woman. Or let's make sure there isn't discrimination against someone with some surname in the classroom when the students decide to gang up on her. But don't gloat about the fact that you have been able to create 27% reservation for some people and are therefore empowering them. You aren't. The power was never yours to take - neither from the woman nor from the man. Don't deprive men of seats they could have won through proper democratic processes without brow-beating women. It isn't fair. Bearing a Brahmin or a Scheduled Caste surname shouldn't mean that you cannot get into a good college.


  1. I completely agree with you.

    This is the difference between real equality and a politically correct version of it. You're talking about the real thing.

    Sadly I can see that some people will flame you for this, but actually this is what life is.

    A handicap (sorry, I won't use the term "differently abled" because it IS the loss of a functionality of a body part no matter what anybody says) shouldn't matter to those who are really determined. And fully functional body parts will be of no use to somebody whose main purpose in life is to loaf around and do nothing.

  2. I forgot to mention how embarrassing such attention would be for those people who actually don't wish to make a big deal of their handicap etc.

  3. Hari, thank you for agreeing with my viewpoint (for once! :) ). And yes, when there is a will there is a way. About people who will flame me, yeah part of life... at least a few civil comments would also help. :)

  4. Don't feel sorry for the women at the reserved parliamentary seats. It was something they have begged for in the first place. There seems to be no difference between beggars on street and individuals begging for reservation.

    And mostly wives of some stupid male politicians only occupy these seats. It is better for the society to have them busy at the parliament rather than regenerating the stupid genes in plenty at home :)

  5. Anirban, You know, I think reservations are necessary to some extent. There has to be a start, in order to change the society, to bring a form of acceptance into the public mindset. Had it not been for reservations, some people would never have let the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes into any walk of life. The point to prove was that the surname does not make a difference: acceptance by the society that external characteristics do not matter. Similarly, the ADA (Americans with Disabilites Act) made provisions so that ramps could be built, parking spaces reserved, etc - to create a level playing field and let this guy, for example, attend school with equal acceptance.

    Some of these things outlive their utility. Like the reservations for the SC/ST in India, I would say. Right now, by allowing lower passing percentages, or allowing them to enter an exam at age 35 when everyone else in the country has to take it by age 30. This is basically insulting their intelligence and mettle.

    So in short, they have never begged for reservations - it was a way of providing them a start where they can compete with us fairly. Right now, however, when they ask for more reservations - you are right, that is begging. The playing field in this regard is already level. Maybe the political playing field also has to be made level for women to enter. A few years, I might be fine with it... if this becomes another SC/ST reservation which refuses to go away then it will be another nail in our national coffin.

    And sire, the gene pool shall be propagated no matter where you and your wife work. You really think 20 more women in parliament will help us with our population problem? :)

  6. It is very difficult to turn off a "reservation" of any sort once it has been started, especially in a country like India, with all its myriad social complications. It is like a tyre-mark on a newly made road. No matter how many vehicles try to iron it over, it remains and there is nothing you can do about it. So rest assured, the women's reservation bill is here to stay.

    There are still many places in the heartland where a Dalit faces discrimination simply because she belongs to a lower cast. She'll be cast dark looks in a class of Brahmins, she'll be the outcast in the market, she'll be deliberately given the last corner seat in the local theatre. The reservation is meant for people like these to try and make it through to the top, where the hostile society would otherwise have prevented her from doing so.

    But when an institution like SCMHRD lowers its ST cut-off to 15.5 for STs where it is 109 for general people, that is when you begin to wonder if the reservation policy is really serving its purpose. After all, even IF a person with 16 manages to slip through the screening stages, it is a moot point if he will survive the two years at the place, whether he will be able to match every step with the intellects of people who have scored 120.

    What this Dalit girl is more likely to have in common with a very poor and deprived Brahmin is just that: poverty. The ST who made it to SCMHRD would nonetheless have to fork out at least 50% of the course fee, which if he can afford, would mean he is not really from that deprived a section of society, after all. So what is needed for creating a level playing field is to have reservations for those who are below a certain poverty level. But that would in itself kick up another storm. Whither a ray of light?

  7. Arunava, as usual, your comment is well thought out and bang on target! I know there is still a lot of discrimination out there: denying that is impossible. But as you rightly point out, the surname alone cannot be the sole criterion: the economic strata should also matter. Whither a ray of light?

  8. Overdose of humanity. It reminded me of Vonnegut. I would like to add more: this is the reason why so many NGOs exists. So many people with no real cause try to justify their existence through overdose. For example, most some people working with CRY and WWF suffer from this ailment.

  9. Debanish, first of all, welcome to the blog! I am not too familiar with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, so I'll reserve my comments about that. But you are right: the feeling of gloating or well-meaning pity drives a lot of people to these NGOs.


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