Bhopal memorial plaque and statue in Bhopal, India. Image via

Hidden Histories: The Bhopal Disaster and Western-Centric Ideas of Disability Rights

In the early morning hours of December 3rd, 1984, hundreds of gallons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas began to leak out of large industrial containers on the property of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, located in the Madhya Pradesh region of India. This incident, known as the Union Carbide disaster, is considered by many environmental activists and scholars to be one of the worst man-made industrial disasters of the 20th century.

Although the gas leak occurred decades ago, the continuing adverse health effects of the disaster that plague Bhopal’s citizens have far-reaching implications for a more global framework of disability rights—something that the Western disability movement has unfortunately left by the wayside.

The illness, health issues, reproductive problems, disability and related abject poverty that the Bhopal gas leak left in its wake signals important issues for disability studies and the disability rights movement–many of which remain unaddressed. The negative and debilitating effects that the Bhopal disaster caused, including illness, injury and disablement reveal some of the limitations of what scholars Clare Barker and Stuart Murray, in their 2010 article “Disabling Postcolonialism: Global Disability Cultures and Democratic Criticism,” call a “rights-centered” disability framework. This framework has taken particular root in the West and especially in North America. Of course, the rights-based social model that disability activists in the U.S. and Canada have forwarded since the mid-1970s is useful and empowering for many people. It has also been instrumental in separating the association with “able” as “good”/normal and “disabled” as automatically “bad” or abnormal.

However,  Barker and Murray strongly contend that this near-exclusive focus on rights and pride may not be “global” enough in its outlook, and ignores—or at worst, outright denies—the different meanings that illness and disability have in different cultural context(s).

Because disability and illness can actually prevent some people from working once they are affected by long-term health conditions and illness–especially in nations that have been adversely impacted by globalization and Western imperialism–the disability rights movement and disability studies in Western countries can begin to rely on active denial when it comes to discussing negative impacts that disability may have on a person with such a condition.

Disability should not be automatically considered bad, but denying the fact that disabilities, chronic illnesses and health conditions caused by accidents and disasters (both industrial and “natural”) can affect disabled people in negative ways is also troubling.

Disability studies and activism, at least in the U.S., have also worked diligently to separate the automatic conflation of “disabled” with “diseased” or chronically ill. As Canadian disability theorist Susan Wendell writes, however, “…some people with disabilities are sick, diseased and ill.” Some disabled people have, or later attain, physical illnesses and health problems that vastly change their quality of life—as demonstrated by some Bhopal survivors’ inability to work because of their health issues. These health problems and disabilities may also change the ways that people with these conditions interact with their bodies and navigate social attitudes surrounding the body and disability.

Any theory of disability that aims to forward the idea of “global bodies,” as Barker and Murray, citing Robert McRuer, term it—impaired and disabled bodies with highly specific cultural, geographical and political contexts–shouldn’t be limited to an overly-positive vision of “disability pride” in service of an easy “[censuring of] narratives that construct disability as loss.” A more global version of disability rights must take events like the Bhopal disaster into account for a new (re)visioning of disability politics. Some of these events demonstrate that in certain contexts, disabling illness, health problems and mental health issues stemming from Western corporate imperialism and globalization can actively make life worse for people who live through such human-made disasters.

This is different, and more complex, than simply saying that “disability is always bad” or tragic; Barker and Murray argue that colonialism and imperialism’s histories are ones of “mass disablement” of entire peoples, and the “acquisition of disability may be tied into wider patterns” of disenfranchisement, oppression, and loss.

Interestingly, this idea goes against the popular–and also facile–Western (abled) notion that “everyone is disabled in some way,” as that saying totally fails to take into account the fact that many people are disadvantaged by significant social factors because of their physical, emotional or mental health differences from “the norm,” or norms which are themselves socially constructed. Barker and Murray argue that “disability as we know it does not wholly account for the range of often fraught interactions between impaired individuals and a society coming to terms with a violent and often traumatic history.”

The ongoing issues stemming from the Bhopal incident also have implications for the environmental movement and anti-corporate politics. As recently as 2005, chemicals from the original disaster site have leeched into the Madrya Pradesh region’s soil and drinking water, endangering thousands and putting already-affected people at even further risk of health problems, in addition to damaging the environment.

Union Carbide India Limited and Dow Chemical’s seemingly blithe unconcern for the survivors of the disaster that the company itself caused reflects an attitude that scholar Pablo Mukherjee sums up this way: the Third-World “victims of gas were expendable because their poverty would have doomed them to an early death anyway.” Physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva adds to this assessment in her introduction to Biopiracy: “It seems that the Western powers are still drive by the colonizing impulse to discover, conquer, own, and possess everything, every society, every culture.” UCIL/Dow Chemical’s building of a chemical plant in a developing nation was not only a deeply cynical move, but their shirking of any responsibility by neither acknowledging their faulty technology’s role in the gas leak nor paying settlements to the survivors of the disaster follows a pattern not uncommon for transnational corporations; this pattern reveals the absolute worst aspects of a globalized, multinational corporate strategy of profits and power being valued over actual people and their bodies—particularly those of poor people living in developing nations.

It is important to examine how the U.S.-based model of disability rights and studies, as it currently operates, does not really account for both the intersectional components of how certain disabilities are experienced in places other than the West–and for the fact that disability and illness can indeed, in different cultural contexts, worsen the bad living situation of disenfranchised people—a large number of whom have already been affected by the impacts of poverty, systemic racism, sexism and Western imperialism in myriad forms. Acknowledging the shortcomings of U.S.-centric disability rights should not be mistaken for an attempt to divide or weaken the movement, either; by naming said shortcomings and situating them in non-U.S. contexts, we can begin to pull apart–and ultimately change–what Western disability rights and studies take for granted, and what they leave unexamined.