Harmless Humor or Ableism?: Supreme Court Judgement Clarifies

In a recent supreme court judgement, the bench delivered a crucial judgement distinguishing between ‘disabling and disability humor’.In the case of Nipun Malhotra v. Sony Pictures Films India Private Ltd, this issue was argued in context of the movie ‘Aankh Micholi’. The petitioner did not sought any ban or censorship on the production of this movie but rather guidelines against the filmmakers regarding the provisions of the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 ( Act of 2016) and the composition of the Board and the Advisory panel under the Cinematograph Act 1952. The bench said

“We must therefore, distinguish ‘disabling humour’ that demeans and disparages persons with disability from ‘disability humour’ which challenges conventional wisdom about disability. While disability humour attempts to better understand and explain disability, disabling humour denigrates it.The two cannot be equated in their impact on dignity and on stereotypes about persons with disabilities.”

Recognizing Modern Disability Humor Model

The Court conducted an analysis and found that in the past, humour was frequently employed to mock individuals with disabilities, portraying their situation as tragic or humorous. The medical model, an antiquated perspective, considered disability as a personal misfortune unsuited to comedy. But this viewpoint is out of date. Disability is viewed differently under the modern social model, which views it as a product of societal restrictions as opposed to a personal issue. According to this paradigm, misconceptions regarding impairments result from a lack of information, which is frequently brought on by a lack of representation in popular discourse. The Court observed that people with disabilities are using humour more and more these days to interact with others and share their stories. This has the potential to dispel negative stereotypes and alter public perceptions of disability. Disabled comedians use humour to promote equality by challenging preconceived notions about who is “different” or “less than,” especially when it comes to making fun of themselves.

Therefore the court noted

 “ The medical model treats disability as a personal ‘tragedy’ which is by definition, incompatible with humour.This understanding is now obsolete under the social model which views disability as a function of social barriers that disable such individuals.The social model says that stereotypes stem from a lack of familiarity with disability. This lack arises due to inadequate representation and participation of persons with disabilities in dominant discourse. Despite the history and the obsolescence of the medical model, humour is not universally denounced in the context of disability. It is now being increasingly used as a sophisticated literary medium for engagement with the society by persons with disabilities. It familiarises the society with the lived experiences of persons with disability, thereby dispelling prejudicial myths, and sensitizing people. Challenging notions of ‘otherness’ or ‘inferiority’ associated with persons with disability, humour creates an equal space”

Article 19(2) Restrictions

The court said that to determine whether the film was violating the restrictions placed under Article 19(2) we had to look at and consider the overall message of the film, if the same is positive then the language would not constitute a violation under Article 19(2) however if the ‘jokes’ are present just for social exclusion without any positive message it does constitute a violation.

“As long as the overall message of the film justifies the depiction of disparaging language being used against persons with disabilities, it cannot be subjected to restrictions beyond those placed in Article 19(2). However, language that disparages persons with disabilities, marginalises them further and supplements the disabling barriers in their social participation, without the redeeming quality of the overall message of such portrayal must be approached with caution. Such representation is problematic not because it offends subjective feelings but rather, because it impairs the objective societal treatment of the affected groups by society.”

Guidelines set down by the bench

It was contended before the Court that, despite the advisory panel having twenty-five members, one of them might be a member of the mentally or physically challenged part. The petitioner contended that sensitivities would be taken into account during the certification process if there was representation on the advisory panel. S.5(1) of the Cinematograph Act allows the Central Government to establish advisory bodies to determine how films affect the general public. According to S.5(4), the advisory group has the right to evaluate the movie and offer changes to the Censorship Board.  The court put forward certain guidelines to be followed-

  • Words cultivate institutional discrimination. Terms such as “cripple” and “spastic” have come to acquire devalued meanings in societal perceptions about persons with disabilities. They contribute to the negative self-image and perpetuate discriminatory attitudes and practices in society;
  • Language that individualises the impairment and overlooks the disabling social barriers (e.g. terms such as “afflicted”, “suffering”, and “victim”) should be avoided or adequately flagged as contrary to the social model130;
  • Creators must check for accurate representation of a medical condition as much as possible. The misleading portrayal of what a condition such as night blindness entails may perpetuate misinformation about the condition, and entrench stereotypes about persons with such impairments, aggravating the disability;
  • Persons with disabilities are under-represented. Average people are unaware of the barriers persons with disabilities face. Visual media must reflect their lived experiences. Their portrayal must capture the multitudes of their lived realities, and should not be a uni-dimensional, ableist characterisation;
  • Visual media should strive to depict the diverse realities of persons with disabilities, showcasing not only their challenges but also their successes, talents, and contributions to society. This balanced representation can help dispel stereotypes and promote a more inclusive understanding of disability. Such portrayals should reflect the multifaceted lives of persons with disabilities, emphasizing their roles as active community members who contribute meaningfully across various spheres of life. By highlighting their achievements and everyday experiences, media can shift the narrative from one of limitation to one of potential and agency;
  • They should neither be lampooned based on myths (such as, ‘blind people bump into objects in their path’) nor presented as ‘super cripples’ on the other extreme. This stereotype implies that persons with disabilities have extraordinary heroic abilities that merit their dignified treatment. For instance, the notion that visually impaired persons have enhanced spatial senses may not apply to everyone uniformly. It also implies that those who do not have such enhanced superpowers to compensate for the visual impairment are somehow less than ideal;
  • Decision-making bodies must bear in mind the values of participation. The ‘nothing about us, without us’ principle is based on t
  • he promotion of participation of persons with disabilities and equalisation of opportunities. It must be put to practice in constituting statutory committees and inviting expert opinions for assessing the overall message of films and their impact on dignity of individuals under the Cinematograph Act and Rules;131
  • The CPRD also requires consultation with and involvement of persons with disabilities in the implementation of measures to encourage portrayal that is consistent with it.132 Collaboration with disability advocacy groups can provide invaluable insights and guidance on respectful and accurate portrayals, ensuring that content aligns with the lived experiences of persons with disabilities; and
  • Training and sensitization programs should be implemented for individuals involved in creating visual media content, including writers, directors, producers, and actors. These programs should emphasize the impact of their portrayals on public perceptions and the lived experiences of persons with disabilities. Topics should include the principles of the social model of disability, the importance of respectful language, and the need for accurate and empathetic representation. Regular workshops and collaboration with disability advocacy groups can foster a deeper understanding and commitment to responsible portrayal


The Supreme Court’s judgement is a pivotal step toward fostering a more inclusive society where humour can be used responsibly. By distinguishing between ‘disabling’ and ‘disability humour’, the Court has set clear guidelines to ensure that humour does not perpetuate stereotypes or discrimination against persons with disabilities. The guidelines emphasize accurate representation, sensitivity, and the active participation of individuals with disabilities in media creation. This judgement promotes a balance between freedom of expression and the dignity of individuals, encouraging a respectful and informed portrayal of disabilities in visual media.

Contributed by Aditya Gupta (Intern)
OP Jindal Global University, BA LLB

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