Dalits, long victim to a caste-based system of social hierarchy that regards them as ‘untouchables’, comprise around 17 per cent of India’s total population.[i] While caste-based discrimination was outlawed in 1955, the social phenomenon of caste persists and is imparted through birth. As a result, Dalits still face severe hardship and exclusion from mainstream society, with prejudicial attitudes and practices underlying much of Indian society today.
Acting simultaneously as a social and physical condition, disability – which varies in form and severity, and may be present from birth or developed during the course of a person’s lifetime – is considerably more prevalent among Dalits than upper castes: 2.4 per cent compared to 1.8 per cent, according to one report.[ii] Dalits are also more likely to have severe forms of disabilities generally, and more specifically, to acquire them at a young age. This is due in part to the influence of factors connected to poorer living conditions, such as anemia, pneumonia and low levels of nutrition.
The intersection of disability with caste can compound the myriad issues faced by Dalits. Disabilities reinforce disadvantage linked to Dalit identity and its consequent deprivation of rights, opportunities, and resources. Dalit children, who already struggle to attend school due to having to physical distance, segregation and discriminatory treatment, face even greater difficulties accessing education when they have disabilities.
In rural areas, where the situation is particularly bleak, lack of basic skills gained through education restricts opportunities for vocational and other training leading to employment. Yet access to employment also depends on social capital, and persons with disabilities – and to an even greater extent those who are Dalits – suffer from stigmatization and negative stereotypes that cast them as unproductive and dependent. The low educational and employment status of Dalits with disabilities in turn increases the likelihood that their households, whose limited resources are already stretched, will face poorer living conditions and greater poverty.
Even natural disasters can be discriminatory in their impacts, affecting Dalits, particularly those with disabilities, disproportionately due to their settlements being situated in vulnerable locations such as rubbish dumps, river banks and other high-risk areas. Furthermore, the response of authorities to assist victims can reinforce this disparity through discrimination. In November 2015, for instance, after devastating floods swept through Tamil Nadu, hundreds of Dalit families who lost their homes and livelihoods found themselves neglected by government relief efforts. Differing starkly from the treatment of upper-caste families, many Dalits were not provided with adequate food, drinking water or emergency health support services, nor even received visits from officials to assess their losses and needs.[iii]
Dalit women and girls with disabilities, situated at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy, are especially vulnerable. They in many cases perform the most dangerous and degrading work, placing their health at greater risk, and suffer a constant threat of sexual violence from members of their own community as well as upper castes. Those with disabilities are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. While the majority of cases go undocumented, a number of recently reported incidents highlight the severity of their situation. In January 2016, for example, a deaf-mute Dalit woman was gang-raped and thrown from a train in Uttar Pradesh, and at the beginning of February 2016 when a man was arrested for raping a deaf-mute Dalit girl in Berhampur, Odisha.
The vulnerability and marginalization faced by Dalits with disabilities is in part a reflection of inadequate government policies and programmes to protect their human rights. While positive efforts have been made to improve the situation of Dalits – through Constitutional amendment, legislation and monitoring bodies, job quotas, affirmative action in the public sector and education – there remains insufficient political will to adequately acknowledge and address discrimination against Dalits in India and work to abolish caste itself. As for persons with disabilities, there have been some recent signs of progress, with the Minister for Justice and Social Empowerment announcing in early 2016 that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill had been drafted, which would help persons with disabilities derive greater benefits from welfare schemes.
But while a stronger rights framework for Dalits and persons with disabilities is urgently needed, this alone may not necessarily bring justice and equality for Dalits with disabilities, who may still find themselves marginalized. It is important therefore that the unique challenges of intersectionality for Dalits with disabilities are also recognized to ensure that they do not continue to be left behind.
[ii] Pal, G.C., ‘Dalits with Disabilities: The Neglected Dimension of Social Exclusion’, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Working Paper Series, Vol. 3, No. 4, 2010, p. 8.
[iii] National Dalit Watch-National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights with Social Awareness Society for Youth, Tsunami to 2015 Floods – “No Respite for Dalits in Disaster Response, Tamil Nadu”: Report of Initial Findings from Immediate Needs Assessment and Monitoring Responses towards Affected Dalit Communities, November 2015, retrieved 15 February 2016,
Photo: Dalit mother and child in India. Credit: Thessaly La Force.