This volume, Disability Studies in India: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Nilika Mehrotra, undertakes the ambitious and important task of mapping the history of disability studies in India over the last few decades. Admittedly, the work covered in this volume pertains to what is taking place in the academy and a few select urban centres of disability activism in India. Despite this apparently limited scope, the volume's undertaking is actually heroic, given the mind-boggling magnitude of the sheer numbers that disability studies in India must consider, and the genuine challenges posed by India's inherent circumstance of operating in twenty-two official languages and hundreds of dialects, not to mention multiple and disparate realities of caste, class, education, land-based dis/enfranchisement, and financial reach. Here is some context. First: the official—and conservative—count of the disabled population in India is 26 million. The actual number is much higher—disability scholars and community activists place the actual number at around 70 million. Second: the official count of the disabled population residing in India's rural areas is 18 million. Again, the actual number is much higher—and this, then, is the population living in areas without urban infrastructures including, in many cases, electricity, plumbing and sewage services, hospitals, motorable roads, and formal social work systems. Third: the official recognition of disability in India is along five categories (the first four being visual disability, hearing disability, mobility disability, and intellectual disability, and a fifth recognising a co-existence of two or more of the first four categories). The actual situation is of millions of individuals—both belonging and not belonging to the recognised disability categories—also navigating violent realities of eviction-related, citizenship-disenfranchisement-related, religion-related, and caste-related discrimination and persecution that amounts to disabling trauma and enduring injury. In other words: the "ground to cover," when discussing India (or, more accurately, the multiple Indias that exist), is so vast and profoundly situationally and linguistically layered, that it is just about unthinkable in most contexts in the global North. A comprehensive disability history of India—even just post-Independence India, i.e., post-1947—is necessary and much-awaited. But in the meantime, efforts such as the current volume are key additions in the long road to that goal.

The aim of the book under review, to be clear, is not to provide a disability history of India, nor even to provide a comprehensive account of disability studies in the country. The book is structured as an examination of specific points of place and time in uses or evocations of disability studies in India, thus mapping what has been (whence disability studies, and how that interdisciplinary critical field has been "imported" into the subcontinent), what is (how far disability studies has been a factor in policy-making, procurement of rights, social practices, and social understandings of disability in the Indian context) and what can be (what the future of disability studies in India might be, and how far the "studies" people, mainly in academia, get to work together with the "field" people, mainly in activism and advocacy). But it is precisely this ability of this book to interrogate what disability studies has been, so to say, doing in India—especially since the country's Persons with Disabilities Act (1995) and the subsequent Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016)—that makes this volume significant in the subcontinent's disability history and in a worldwide reckoning of where theory meets activism, which then meets policy, which then again meets new theory. The main point of my review, then, is that this is an awaited and important book.

In Mehrotra's Introduction, her learned review of the preceding literature on disability studies in India and expansive elucidation of the stakes of the current work do a commendable job of priming the reader for the multifaceted and even eclectic material to follow. It sets the reader up for a multidisciplinary journey as the book juggles questions of epistemology, access, design, pedagogy (Part 1: James Staples, Shubhangi Vaidya, Shilpa Das, Anita Ghai, Shilpaa Anand), higher-education-institution policy-making and policy-implementation (Part 2: Tanmoy Bhattacharya, Neerja Sharma, Amita Dhanda, Mehrotra and Ritika Gulyani, Srilatha Juvva), and rights-based prerogatives in work, travel, and education (Part 3: Jagdish Chander, Deepa Sonpal and Vanmala Hiranandani, Nimushakavi Vasanthi, Mahima Nayar, Gulyani, Kavita Murugkar, Anurag Kashyap and Abir Mullick). Productively, too, this book does not shy away from philosophical questions such as who gets to be disabled and thus claim disabled rights (Ghai and Chander), the risks to collective knowledge posed through a primarily services-oriented approach to disability (especially in a context where the state's policies remain welfare-oriented; Bhattacharya), and the possibilities of constructively segregated education (among Deaf peoples; Gulyani).

The volume is strongest in the chapters authored by its by disabled pedagogues (even as Ghai's chapter provocatively asks if a disabled person can be perceived to be a pedagogue among mainstream nondisabled societies) and where it mentions specifics of disability-theory adaptation and influence on institutional policy or instruction (Chander; Anand; Nayar; Vasanthi; Sonpal and Hiranandani; Juvva; Murugkar, Kashyap and Mullick). It similarly does valuable work where it locates and makes explicit radical differences between government-level rhetoric and action: for instance, "even though India has passed a disability law in accordance with the UNCRPD [United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] in 2016, but [sic] little to no additional funding has been provided. There is no data available as to whether universities have any budget that has been especially earmarked for a D[isability] S[tudies] cell or a D[isability] S[studies] centre." Oddly, however, this book concerned specifically with the affordances of disability theory and practice engagement in India offers little to no discussion on the Indian government's dangerous adoption of the term "Divyangjan" (literally, "those of divine limbs/body") to designate disabled persons. As disability rights advocates in India know, the Indian state's failure of care and its attempt to absolve itself of responsibility towards its disabled citizens is, by the use of the term "Divyangjan," enshrined into government policy. Yet, this very Indian matter central to disability studies in India goes almost unremarked in this book. Perhaps related: a less salutary contribution of this volume is also its marginalisation of the imaginative and metaphorical understandings of disability—of all the studies in the imaginative arts, only literature is even considered in this volume; there is no examination of disability studies in the creative or performative arts.

Three other absences of substantive engagement loom large, despite indications that the editor and authors are aware of the significance of the topics—namely, analyses of disability studies intersections with caste, sexuality, and immigration/citizenship status. I mark these absences not to lessen the achievement of the volume—the achievement is noteworthy—but for political reasons. In our 21st-century world, where governments daily find new forms of disenfranchisement to persecute and dehumanise multiply minoritized populations, academic work can and should counter state agendas of perpetuating/exacerbating a harmful status quo. I therefore advance, in a spirit of inviting future work, that "Interdisciplinary Perspectives" of disability studies in any part of South Asia need to engage centrally with caste (under the leadership of Dalit scholars and activists), with sexuality (using and crediting the knowledge created by queer-trans-Kothi-Hijra scholars and leaders), and with citizenship/immigration status (especially in India's post-National-Register-of-Citizens and post-Citizenship-Amendment-Act climate). This volume's call to decolonise disability studies in the subcontinent (Staples) is well taken; the engagements I ask would allow such decolonisation to actually unfold in academic and activist practice.

I shall close with a serious critique of the book's publisher, owing to the numerous typographical infelicities in this book. For my unpleasant reading experience, I emphatically do not lay the responsibility with the book's authors. I lay the responsibility with Springer, a global publisher that failed to provide editorial support to a book it undertook to print. I used to work at a higher education publishing firm before becoming an academic; it is the publisher's job to ensure that a book's text is error-free and felicitous before it goes to press. For all its multi-million-dollar returns ($235.6 million in profits in 2018), Springer seems not to have had the editorial expertise—or, perhaps, the decent labour and salary practices that retain editorial expertise—to ensure a polished product. I must also point out the irony of a volume on disability studies being financially inaccessible to most disability studies scholars and activists not only in the global South but anywhere in the world (the e-book is priced at $109; the hardcover at $149). I had to hunt for a softcover edition (available at a lower price, but one that I should still not have been able to pay while in India: $25). It is surely not too late for Springer to publish a corrected impression, or to make the book more easily available to multiple populations. In other words, I am asking Springer to behave with integrity and to enable access.


While the opinions expressed in this review are my own, I am grateful to Hemachandran Karah for his insights on disability pedagogy and instruction in India.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2021 Amrita Dhar

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)