Social justice groups forget Dalit women with disabilities, and it’s not just oversight

On the occasion of Dalit History Month, two activists shine a spotlight on the profoundly marginalised intersection of disability, caste, and gender in India.
Image for representation
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A few years ago in Chennai, some prominent disability rights organisations held a swayamvaram (wedding) for persons with disabilities. The event featured a public interview, meant to help a groom who had complete visual impairment find a suitable bride. The conversation in the crowded hall unfolded along these lines:

Matchmaker: Do you have a job?

Eligible Groom: Yes!

Matchmaker: Where do you work?

Eligible Groom: I work in the government’s ****** department.

Matchmaker: How much do you earn each month?

Eligible Groom: I earn Rs 60,000 each month.

Matchmaker: Wonderful! What are your expectations for a bride?

Eligible Groom: She should be understanding and take care of me and my mother.

Matchmaker: Is it alright if the bride has a disability?

Eligible Groom: Yes, it would be better if she has a slight disability.

Matchmaker: Do you have any other expectations?

Eligible Groom: She should not be an SC (Scheduled Caste/Dalit). Everything else is okay.

The discrimination and marginalisation faced by Dalit women with disabilities is not an isolated phenomenon, and their consistent exclusion from the social justice narrative is not merely an oversight. Instead, it is a stark manifestation of a political failure to address deep-rooted injustices. 

Intersectionality, first coined by Black feminist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is an increasingly discussed concept in academic and feminist circles. In India, intersectionality finds its greatest embodiment in the lived realities of Dalit women and gender diverse people who live with disabilities. To truly understand this, one must recognise how deeply the dimensions of disability, caste, and gender are entwined and exacerbate one another, each adding layers of disadvantage.

The concept of access is fundamental to all these considerations, and the lived reality of a Dalit woman with disability is essentially a triple whammy. Her access to public spaces, educational, employment and leadership opportunities are all severely limited when compared to her female counterpart from a different caste location who also has disabilities. For a Dalit woman with disability, venues for personal development and to live life to its fullest is out of bounds. This is why there is a need to not only interrogate intersectionality, but to also integrate it in our seeking for disability, gender, and caste justice.

What the data says

Currently, the only reliable disability data available in India is from the 2011 census, which is well past its shelf life. However obsolete, that limited data gives us a window into the dimensions of disability and its reverberations from a social, cultural, economic, and political lens. As of 2011, there were 2.68 crore people living with a benchmark disability — that is 2.21% of the total population. This is a conservative estimate any way you look at it, as the enumeration of persons with disabilities in the census was fraught with challenges. 

The census information on disability has a substantial subjective component, as it depends on the perception of disability of both the respondent and the interviewer. This implies that the rates of disability may well be grossly underreported due to cultural and attitudinal bias.

The age-standardised disability prevalence is significantly higher among the Scheduled Castes

(SCs/Dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs/Adivasis) than among the other sub-populations. Persons with disabilities among SC-ST groups comprise 2.45% of the total population. Dalit girls are especially disadvantaged and suffer disproportionately from the effects of malnutrition, infant mortality, lack of education,  and decreased access to health services; thereby contributing to perpetuating the vicious cycle of ‘disability’.

The overall literacy rate of the Indian population in 2011 was 74%, and that of women was 65.5%. The literacy rate of Dalit women meanwhile stood at 56%, while that of women with disability was a mere 45%. This simple statistic shows how the layers of marginalisation impact access to education. Going by this trend, our guesstimate is that the literacy rate of Dalit women with disabilities can be ball-parked at 35%.

However, these numbers fail to convey the full extent of neglect and isolation experienced by Dalits with disabilities, particularly among women and gender diverse people. Dalit women with disabilities endure a trifecta of discrimination: disability makes them invisible, caste places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy denying them any social mobility, and their gender strips them of agency and autonomy. In the context of social justice, their realities are often a mere backdrop to broader discussions, which focus predominantly on either caste or gender or sexuality, rarely intersecting these with disability. They remain marginalised within the very movements that should champion their cause.

Systemic exclusion

The larger disability rights movement, while advocating for accessibility and inclusion, frequently falls short of recognising the nuanced barriers that caste imposes. Even in feminist-led Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), which are predominantly headed by dominant caste women with disabilities, the concerns of Dalit women might often be the last bullet on their agenda, if at all they are considered. Similarly the Dalit movement, while focused on combating caste-based oppression, often overlook the additional layers of exclusion faced by those who have disabilities. Feminist groups advocating for women and LGBTQIA+ rights also rarely delve into the intersection of gender with caste and disability. 

This structural neglect has sidelined an entire group whose experiences could deeply inform and enrich the social justice discourse. Dalit women with disabilities are virtually absent from policy frameworks and advocacy initiatives that are supposed to address their unique challenges. Their representation is negligible, and their voices suppressed.

This negligence reflects a broader societal and cultural malaise. For instance, consider how public infrastructure, which is largely inaccessible, makes the physical presence of individuals with disabilities in public spaces a rarity. When this disability intersects with the identity of being a Dalit and a woman, the exclusion is magnified. Educational and employment opportunities shrink, healthcare is a distant dream, and social mobility becomes non-existent. This is not incidental but indicative of a calculated disregard within the policymaking and social structures. Even in private, they are often subjected to abuse and neglect, their rights and dignity stripped away.

Furthermore, the internal diversity of disabilities — ranging from physical impairments to intellectual and neurodivergent conditions — creates a spectrum of needs and experiences that are rarely addressed collectively. A wheelchair user, for example, faces different challenges than those encountered by someone who is deaf or neurodivergent. And when caste and gender/sexuality are added to this mix, the result is a potent trap of immobility and helplessness.

Dalit women with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, often facing systemic barriers that prevent access to justice or support. Addressing these challenges requires targeted interventions that include legal reforms, sensitisation programs for law enforcement and judicial entities, and supportive services that are both accessible and culturally competent. Support networks, including counselling and safe shelters, need to be strengthened to provide immediate relief and rehabilitation and long-term assistance. Additionally, empowering these women through education and economic opportunities can help reduce their vulnerability to violence and increase their autonomy.

This dire situation is not just a failure of policy but a moral failing of society at large. It is a reflection of a pervasive patriarchal and caste-based order that actively works to keep certain populations in a state of perpetual disadvantage. This is not merely about negligence but about systemic oppression.

Reframing social justice

Given the scenario, it is necessary that governments, philanthropies, donors, social justice and human rights advocates must prioritise and intensify their commitment to this historically neglected constituency. The state should establish and enforce legal frameworks that specifically include caste-based affirmative action for historically marginalised communities such as SCs and STs (Dalits and Adivasis) with disabilities, with an enhanced focus on the unique circumstances of women and gender diverse people who have disabilities.

The most debilitating of these marginalisations - i.e disability, can be addressed by well-known and time-tested approaches. The state and its stakeholders must commit to creating a level playing field through proportional representation (otherwise called reservation) and proportional allocation of funds in schemes. More important is the application of the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’, a need-based modification or adjustment in the environment or activity. One of the best-known examples of ‘reasonable accommodation’ is the practice of ‘work from home’ which was frowned upon when requested by persons with disability in the pre-Covid times, but has now evolved into an accepted mode of working for all.

Funding agencies and donors must amplify their commitment, strategically channelling resources into initiatives led by Dalit and Adivasi women with disabilities. It is imperative to acknowledge that women with disabilities are not a socially homogeneous but diverse group, starkly influenced by social institutions like caste which critically shape their opportunities. Funders and advocates need to extend their reach beyond familiar networks and established figures, and instead actively seek out and engage with underrepresented voices. 

There is an urgent need to engage in the meticulous and challenging task of identifying and supporting initiatives led by women with disabilities from non-dominant castes. This strategic redirection of resources and focus is essential to address the unique barriers these groups face, and to ensure that advocacy and support are genuinely inclusive and effective. Such actions are not merely administrative but are a crucial political commitment to dismantling the systemic inequities that persist within our society. Anything less is not support but continued complicity in the invisibilisation of Dalit women with disabilities.

This struggle is not just about correcting oversights; it’s about confronting and overturning a systemic architecture that marginalises the most vulnerable. There is a need for robust, intersectional policies and unwavering support for initiatives that centre Dalit women with disabilities, not as mere recipients of aid, but as leaders. Our collective moral imperative must be clear: we must actively dismantle the structures of oppression or remain complicit in perpetuating them.

Dr Aiswarya Rao is the founder of Better World Shelter for Women with Disabilities and can be reached on X/Twitter @aisrao. Priyanka Samy is with the National Federation of Dalit Women and can be reached on X/Twitter @PriyankaSamy.

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