From disability stigma to disability value: Notes from research on disability in urban India

I am a medical anthropologist who researches deaf and disabled peoples’ social, moral, and economic practices in urban India. When speaking with colleagues and friends in the United States and elsewhere, I am invariably asked about the existence of stigma in India and whether deaf or disabled people are treated as stigmatized. People also ask me about pollution and if my deaf and disabled friends are seen as sources of pollution. While such questions might reflect what has typically been written about disability in the popular media and to a certain extent in scholarly works, I want to outline how I do not think that stigma and pollution are appropriate analytical or even descriptive concepts to use for discussing disability in India (and perhaps elsewhere in the world as well). To do so, I focus on deaf and disability employment in urban India, a topic of much concern to many of my deaf and disabled friends as they search for meaningful and stable livelihoods. I suggest that thinking of disability in terms of value is perhaps more appropriate. However, in this discussion of disability value, I also want to voice concern about what kinds of value we are talking about and who benefits from this value.

In the summer of 2009, I went on a long rickshaw ride with Jyothi, a researcher at a Bangalore-based non-government organization (NGO) and vocational training center for disabled people. We had set off together in order to visit a new business process outsourcing (BPO) company that was hiring disabled workers, including many young computer students from the NGO where Jyothi worked. I had also read about the company in Bangalore daily newspapers where it had been proclaimed “a BPO with a heart” and I had noted that it had received an award for employing disabled people from one of India’s prominent national disability NGOs. As we arrived in the quiet industrial neighborhood where the company was located, we started looking for its offices. Finally, we saw a banner hanging from the window of a building. On the banner was written: “Now accepting applications for data entry positions. Physically disabled only need apply.” Jyothi and I looked at each other and knew that we had reached the right place (and we also wished that we had brought cameras with us to document this banner).

Since my initial visit, this company has moved across the street to a larger office space with two floors, a training room, and a plush reception area. It also has offices in Cochin, Kerala and its demand for disabled workers is so great that it works with human resource recruiters around India who specialize in sourcing disabled workers. The workers at this company do basic data entry work: they update databases for insurance companies, they scan job offer letters for banks, and they look at old British handwritten census reports and input the information into electronic archives, for example. Workers come from all over India and they stay in hostels arranged by the company. The company also provides them with meals. Payment for this room and board is taken out of the workers’ quite meager (by Indian standards) salary.

I had been anxious to visit this company and meet its founder and chief executive officer. In the course of my fieldwork in Bangalore with sign language-using deaf young adults in which I explored how deaf people become members of a larger deaf community and create ideas of deaf futures, I had met many deaf workers who currently or formerly worked there. These workers were quite ambivalent about working at this company because they said that it paid very poorly, required long work days, and offered little in terms of career advancement. On the other hand, they liked that they worked with other deaf and disabled people who could communicate with them in sign language and the camaraderie that existed. The chief executive officer was also proficient at sign language and she attempted to create, in her words, “a family atmosphere.”

This is not the only company hiring disabled people in India: Café Coffee Day, India’s largest chain of coffee cafes, hires deaf workers as baristas and has created the category of “the silent brewmaster” (other coffee cafes also hire deaf workers as well). Infosys, perhaps India’s most well known Information Technology company, has an “Infyability” initiative and prominently advertises its commitment to hiring disabled workers and hosts World Disability Day events. KFC has created “special KFCs” in various Indian cities where deaf workers field orders and fry chicken. Customers are told to point to pictures of what they wish to order and there are large diagrams on the walls featuring Indian Sign Language vocabulary. There is a Mumbai-based courier company that only hires deaf couriers (deaf people get free train passes and so the company does not have to pay transit costs to and from delivery destinations). These are just a few examples of disability employment: one only needs to type the keywords “disability, BPO, employment, India” into Google or another search engine to see that disabled workers have become employees of choice for multinational and Indian service and hospitality companies. India’s landmark disability legislation, The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities and Full Participation) Act does not require that the private sector hire disabled workers and so these companies do so under through corporate social responsibility and diversity initiatives.

In other writing, I have analyzed the move from the previous welfare-based category of “person with disability” to the (neo-liberal) “worker with disability” in India. I have explored the emergence of NGOs, state programs, and corporate initiatives that focus specifically on job training and job placement for disabled people. In contrast to older programs that provided disabled people with social services, these initiatives are designed to produce, in the words of an NGO administrator, “responsible and productive workers.” In line with this, I have started to think about the importance of shifting the analytical lens that medical anthropologists and other social scientists use to think about disability. The concept of stigma is arguably the most common lens used but I am not sure it is relevant today. While Erving Goffman’s book of the same name (Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity) is an in-depth discussion of how identities are spoiled through a social and interactional process, most people writing about disability do not cite Goffman (or anyone else) in their discussions of stigma nor do they define what they mean by stigma; the concept has become a black box. Indeed, Disability Studies scholars have begun to critically examine Goffman’s legacy, and the concept of stigma more generally, in the study of disability: the plenary panel at the Society for Disability Studies’ June 2013 meeting was devoted to discussing the fiftieth anniversary of Goffman’s classic text.

The current situation in India in which disabled workers are desired employees seems to me to be convincing evidence of why stigma as a concept no longer works. And the fact that deaf people are brewing coffee, making coleslaw, and baking pizzas also indicates that attaching the category of “pollution” to disability in India may no longer be salient. To the contrary, I interviewed customers in coffee cafes who told me that they thought that deaf brewmasters made better coffee than hearing brewmasters and that they especially enjoyed frequenting cafes where deaf people worked. In moving away from stigma, I have started to conceptualize disability in terms of (neo-liberal) value in that I now think about what kinds of value are extracted from disabled people. The concept of value seems especially fitting because non-governmental organization administrators and corporate human resource executives market disabled workers in terms of the value that they can add to workplaces. Administrators and executives constantly told me that disabled workers have lower attrition rates than non-disabled workers, that they are more loyal and dependable, and that they positively impact their workplaces by serving as sources of inspiration to their non-disabled coworkers (who then also feel more positively about their companies because they think that these companies “take care” of disabled workers).

In his work with beggars living with leprosy in Andhra Pradesh, anthropologist James Staples illustrates how leprosy may be a source of value: the beggars with whom he works earn more money from begging than they would as daily wage laborers. Their physical deformities become a source of financial capital. I think Staples makes a very provocative point that deserves further attention. While his interlocutors are seemingly operating individually or as members of a larger leper community, and while Staples’ point is that these individuals benefit financially, my research with deaf and physically disabled workers in India has shown that the concept of “value” needs to be nuanced. Who benefits from this value? How is value, in the form of affective and physical labor, being extracted from disabled workers? Are there new forms of affective economies that emerge from interacting with disabled workers? How do we think about statements proclaiming that deaf people make better coffee than hearing people?

To be sure, the kind of value that I am writing about is not an example of the newly popular concept of “Deaf-gain” in the discipline of Deaf Studies. “Deaf-gain” exists as an alternative to and play on the medical term “hearing loss” and argues that deaf people have unique perspectives and knowledges to share with the world, from the use of sign language to rich story telling traditions to unique spatial practices (deaf space). Indeed, both Deaf Studies and Disability Studies have argued for an analysis of deafness and disability that moves away from stigma. As Neil Marcus, disability activist, poet, and scholar, has eloquently proclaimed: “Disability is an art—an ingenius way to live.” Similarly, other Disability Studies scholars have argued that the study of disability forces us to interrogate binaries of normal/abnormal and center/periphery and therefore offers us new ways of understanding the world. Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, riffing off of Deaf-gain, has recently proposed “Disability-gain” as a way of thinking about disability. While these disciplinary orientations (or values) are important, I am a bit wary of the ways that these disciplines ascribe exceptionalism to deafness or disability. I am especially concerned in light of new discourses that are emerging around disability that are, again, harnessed for others’ advantages: disabled people as “differently abled” or possessing “unique skills.”

For example, in a conversation with a job placement coordinator at another Bangalore-based NGO, I asked her about three deaf young women who were about to start working at Café Coffee Day. I was concerned about their training and orientation period and whether they would have sign language interpreters. The coordinator told me that their training would be much shorter than that of non-deaf workers and that “deaf people are very visual people and they learn very quickly through their eyes. They just need to see how to make the coffee.” Similarly, other job placement coordinators and vocational trainers in India told me that deaf people are especially suited to work with computers because “they are deaf and cannot talk.” The chief executive officer of the company that I mentioned at the very start of this post told me that data entry work was good for physically disabled people because “they can sit for long periods of time.” While these statements are arguably different than stating that deaf people make better coffee (as customers told me) and that deaf people have “a heightened sense of smell, taste and vision,” as a Human Resources executive said, they do attribute seemingly unique values to deaf and disabled people. Disability seems to enable certain kinds of work dispositions.

This focus on disability value is not unique to India. For instance, a recent New York Times Magazine article, titled “The Autism Advantage,” discusses an example of this attribution of unique or added value to disabled people on a more international scale. Chronicling the efforts of Thorkil Sonne to start an international job training and placement service for autistic people called Specialisterne, the article discusses how autistic workers are better suited for certain kinds of repetitive work in today’s economy, from data entry to testing software programs. Specialisterne was initially established in Denmark and now has offices in Ireland and the United States (it had offices in Scotland which closed when Scotland experienced a financial crisis). While Sonne’s efforts in Denmark are subsidized by the state and workers are paid what seems to be a living wage (and plans are underway for workers in the United States to be similarly highly paid), the question remains of how desirable these jobs are and what kinds of stability and advancement they offer. Recently Specialisterne has placed workers at the software company SAP in Bangalore where autistic workers are responsible for testing new programs to ensure that they are without glitches.

While some reading this might feel discomfort about the fact that I have placed deaf, physically disabled, and autistic workers together in order to make a broader point about disability and value, I am doing so to emphasize the importance of rethinking how we write about disability. Perhaps the move from stigma to this kind of (potentially exploitative and/or extractive) value is not such a big move at all. Perhaps there is a way that stigma and value are opposite sides of the same coin. However, in light of the making of these new “workers with disabilities” and in light of the fact that disability is now being marketed as “added value” by NGOs and corporate Human Resource executives, it seems to me that we need a new way of theorizing disability. This new way of theorizing should ideally also address disability value.


Michele Friedner is currently an NSF postdoctoral fellow in MIT’s Anthropology Program. She has just completed a book manuscript that explores how sign language-using deaf young adults in urban India take “deaf turns” and become oriented towards each other and a wider deaf sociality. She is working on a second project analyzing international deaf missionary and Bible translation programs and a third project that explores the spatial practices of physically disabled tricycle users in urban India. She can be reached at mfriedne AT mit DOT edu

2 replies on “From disability stigma to disability value: Notes from research on disability in urban India”

Interesting article. It seems to me that the companies that hire disabled people are benefitting more than disabled workers themselves – perhaps in terms of CSR mileage/publicity, or subsidies (as in te courier companies). But do the disabled workers get adequately compensated for their work? Are they paid as much as a non-disabled worker, or is there a monetary discrimination? I’m asking in an Indian context.

Comments are closed.