The second session of Bricolage II, an online lecture and interaction series organized by the research scholars of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad was held on 24th January, 2021. The department hosted Ishan Chakraborty, Assistant Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. The talk was titled, ‘Rereading the Concepts of Disability and Access through the lens of the Pandemic’. The session was attended by faculty, students and scholars from UoH as well as from other varsities.
In the first part of this tripartite lecture, Chakraborty reminded the audience how the disabled community has historically been subjected to violence from normative society. In the specific context of India, Chakraborty pointed out, disability and poverty are interlinked. One of the current problems is the lack of correct information across all platforms, which marginalizes the disabled community of the country even further. Moreover, Chakraborty observed, it is also wrong to homogeneously brand disabled people, since the particular needs of an individual are determined not just by the nature of their disability but also mitigated or exacerbated by their economic and social status. The pandemic, with its new set of social rules and norms, has made the task of negotiating public spaces for essential services all the more difficult for the disabled community. The speaker used personal anecdotes to illustrate this. He also drew attention to the breakdown of the caregiving structure in the present context and observed how unfairly gendered the caregiving structure is in the country. The situation is further complicated with the strains in, and breakdown of, the relation between the caregiver and the disabled person. With the widespread disappearance of numerous jobs during the pandemic, especially in the informal, unorganized sector of the economy, many disabled people, such as beggars or sellers of trinkets on suburban trains in metropolitan centres, have been robbed of their livelihood. Chakraborty also observed how the pandemic has created a new form of visibility for the disabled in the public eye and generated a discourse on rights and privileges that the ‘centre’ has hitherto taken for granted even as those at the ‘margins’ were systematically denied access. A question-and-answer session followed where members of the audience discussed the terms of defining disability’ and sought insights into what possibilities the post-pandemic society holds for the disabled.
In the second part of his talk, Chakraborty pointed to certain unexpected benefits that have accrued to the disabled community as a result of the pandemic. The condition of being under “lockdown”, which imposed spatial and temporal restrictions of the free movement of ‘normal’ people in the public domain, became the quotidian reality for mainstream society and helped create a public imaginary around the experience of being disabled. Additionally, mental health issues caused by such enforced confinement has come to the forefront of public discourse and it is now become easier for a disabled person to join this conversation. Chakraborty argued for the need to make accessible digital platforms that are the current repositories of information about health and safety to the disabled community. This is specifically important when traditional modes of physical accessibility are being rendered defunct by state regulations during the pandemic. In the Q&A session that followed, questions about the categorization of various forms of disability within the scope of the institutional spaces were discussed.
In the third and last part of his talk, Chakraborty summed up his observations and deliberated on the concept of the ‘new normal’. He pointed out how the idea of the ‘normal’ has been one of the major ways through which society has continued to deny the disabled community equal rights and opportunities as members of civil society. Tracing the etymology of the word ‘normal’, Chakraborty pointed out how under the guise of ‘normalcy’, certain tactics of living have been devised that are, indeed, discriminatory and exclusionary towards the disabled. He concluded by remarking on how in neo-capitalist market economies such as ours, the discourse around disability can be a useful response to systemic inequalities and a step towards their redressal. Moreover, the ‘new normal’, Chakraborty observed, has even led to more heterogeneous, differential ways of understanding disabilities even within the disabled community as a whole.
The session ended with general comments and a formal vote of thanks.