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South Asia and Disability Studies

Redefining Boundaries and Extending Horizons


Edited By Shridevi Rao and Maya Kalyanpur

Incorporating scholarship that addresses the social, economic, cultural, and historical facets of the experience of disability in South Asia, this book presents the reader with a comprehensive, cogent, and nuanced view of the constructions of disability in this region. In doing so, it focuses on the lived experiences of people with disabilities and their families, analyzing such disabling barriers as poverty, caste, and other inequities that limit their access to education, employment, equity, and empowerment. It addresses the interpretations of disability within different South Asian contexts including policy, family, educational systems, films, and literary narratives. Situated in an interdisciplinary perspective that spans areas such as cultural studies, law, disability studies in education, sociology, and historiography, South Asia and Disability Studies presents a rich and complex understanding of the disability experience in South Asia. The organization of topics parallels the discourse in areas within disability studies such as identity construction, language, historical constructions of disability, and cultural representations of disability.
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Chapter 6: Studying Responses to Disability in South Asian Histories: Approaches Personal, Prakrital and Pragmatical


*This chapter is a reprint of Miles, M. (2001). Studying responses to disability in South Asian histories: approaches personal, prakrital, and pragmatical. Disability & Society, 16(1), 143-160. Reprinted with permission fromTaylor and Francis.


In recent years I accumulated materials for studies of social, legal, medical, religious, literary and folkloric responses to disability in South Asian histories, from antiquity to the 20th century, using archival materials and scholarly translations from South Asian languages.1 The main focus has been on what anglophone Asians call mental retardation or mental handicap, also at different times and places called ‘learning difficulties’ or ‘learning disability’, ‘intellectual impairment’, ‘stupidity’, ‘foolishness’, ‘idiocy’;2 and also a minor focus on blindness and aspects of disability in some major religions and ideologies. This paper sketches approaches to, and pitfalls of, this one aspect of disability history. The aim has been to learn not only how people used to respond to disabilities but whether such knowledge might ← 127 | 128 → affect what is done and planned now. The ‘history of disability’ is already becoming many ‘histories of disabilities’, whether histories of family and community responses, the growth of formal services, development of techniques and gadgets, critical histories of services (whether perceived as philanthropy, as self-help or as forms of social control), beginnings and elaboration of disability stories as used in religious teaching, folklore and mythology, personal accounts by historical individuals who had disabilities, histories of laws concerning people with disabilities, the historical growth of medical, psychological...

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