A wave of condemnation has followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi, following his distasteful remarks at IIT-Roorkee; the PM was, apparently, trying to poke fun at political rival Rahul Gandhi at the expense of dyslexics.
Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that causes children to struggle with reading, writing, maths,
The PM’s comments have not gone down well with patients suffering from the learning disability. Their families and special educators agree how attitudes like this serve as a stumbling block for dyslexics even today. Several child psychologists have since demanded that Modi tender an unconditional apology.
Here’s what happened
It happened during his recent interaction with a roomful of engineering students, who participated in the Smart India Hackathon.
“We have an idea to help dyslexic children,” the presenter said, “whose pace of learning and writing is very slow. But they have a high intelligence and creativity level.”
She also cited Taare Zameen Par, the 2007 Bollywood hit centred around a dyslexic child.
“Will this help 40- or 50-year-old men?” Modi chortled, at what is widely regarded as an allusion to Gandhi, interrupting her and evoking amusement among the crowd.
When she said yes, he continued, “That will make their mothers happy!” More amusement followed as students dissolved in laughter and started clapping.
It’s ironic that an event meant to encourage students to create technology-driven solutions to women and child safety issues provided the platform for such detrimental conversation. The Ministry of Women and Child Development has not yet commented on the controversy.
Highlighting new issues
Modi’s comments and laughter reveal a lack of basic awareness about learning ad intellectual disabilities among the public; and this despite the fact that at least 10%—nearly 35 million—Indian children are dyslexic, as per a 2015 government estimate.
However, the limited awareness means that the numbers may be even higher; after all, government schools don’t have the tools to identify the children with learning difficulties.
The entire fiasco at IIT-Roorkee received serious media attention and came around the time the world observed Dyscalculia (number dyslexia) Awareness Day.
It also revived demands that the Centre relax some rules for dyslexic students to procure academic exemptions, like relaxations during exams and getting a scribe.
The Times of India says Mysuru’s All India Institute of Speech and Hearing gives dyslexic students disability certificates only after they sit through a series of tests.
“It’s two months of running around every year. Instead of understanding our difficulties and working to ease them, the PM has hurt our sentiments,” S Vivi, mother of a dyslexic daughter, tells TOI.
…and some old ones
Dilip D’Souza writing for The Wire, says, “To watch my prime minister treat it that way, then, is nauseating.”
“And to watch a room filled with young students guffaw and applaud this man’s insensitivity is worse than nauseating. It filled me with despair.”
All the students who joined the PM in bemused laughter hail from one of the most competitive engineering schools in the country, where there is little to no space for disabled students, or access to special learning tools. Even if there is, such students are naturally pushed to the margins.
“The current education system is nothing but a factory model that thrives on unhealthy competition. A child with special needs is either made to fail by design or is asked to leave,” educationist Harshita Das told TOI.
Moreover, teachers and parents in metropolitan cities are a little more sensitised than their counterparts in small towns and villages, highlighting the privilege gap, which further complicates how we address exclusion and marginalisation of disabled people.
By making dyslexics the butt of his jokes, Modi has hurt the sentiments and struggle of one in every 10 people, who have learned to work around their disability with determination and practise.
Some well-known people with dyslexia are director Steven Spielberg and actors Tom Cruise and Abhishek Bachchan, scientist Albert Einstein and artist Pablo Picasso.
But that does not, for once, discount the trials of patience, the dread of failure, the constant challenges and pity that accompany young children with dyslexia on a daily basis.
Why this is important to us
This isn’t the first time this government has excused itself for unacceptable remarks and unpresidential behaviour towards people with special needs.
In December 2018, a video clip showing a BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh’s Sambhal assaulting a disabled man for allegedly abusing Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and promising his vote to Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav went viral. The clip showed Mohammad Miya hitting and shoving a stick inside the disabled man’s mouth.
In Modi’s case, too, he aimed to score political points with the disability ‘joke’. On several other occasions, many BJP lawmakers, including Modi, have called Gandhi “Pappu”—a generic term to signify a simpleton.
Considering Gandhi has presumably never been diagnosed with dyslexia, Modi’s latest comments backfired like many of his election stratagems of late; the Opposition, too, lashed out at him on Twitter.
Making fun of people who are visually, mentally or physically challenged is a big no-no, for which several of our beloved public figures have been crucified, or at least held accountable, on social media. Yet, ‘retarded’ is a common go-to phrase in sitcoms, while harmful stereotypes routinely grace our films, television and web series.
It is indeed a whole new low, however, when the head of our nation, violates this basic ethical code.
The incident makes one wonder: do our leaders even comprehend the struggles of those who suffer from these disabilities? It also poses a bigger question: how many of them get representation in our governing bodies and as policymakers?
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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