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Enabling sensitivity


Growing awareness notwithstanding, India still lacks genuine sensitivity towards physically challenged people. Despite a plethora of laws to protect their rights, they continue to struggle for a dignified life, reports Pratham Dwivedi
PRATHAM DWIVEDI | Issue Dated: December 23, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : Physically challenged | CBR | Discrimination against physically challenged | WHO |

On a fateful day, the principal of Arman Ali's school in Guwahati called his father to deliver some tragic news. Arman, then in class VII, was being asked to leave. It wasn't because he was unruly or had been getting into fights. Nor had he been failing in his class. The reason he was being asked to leave was that he had a disability. He was physically challenged and could not walk without a crutch.

Across the border, Abia Akram in Islamabad, faced a similar threat. The treatment meted out to her was, however, at the other end of the spectrum. She was a pampered child and was treated like a princess. She was never reprimanded for her mistakes. Her teachers felt pity for the “poor disabled girl”.

Both Arman and Abia have since then managed to break free of both derision and condescension and have carved out their own places in this world. Arman completed his schooling from the National Open School and graduated through a distance learning course. In the meantime, he started helping his father in his construction business and went on to win the National Award for the Best Self-employed Person with Disability in 1998. He is now the Executive Director of Shishu Sarothi, an organisation working for the rehabilitation and training for multiple disabilities.

On her part, Abia completed her education with excellent scores and is now working with international organisations for the welfare and rights of women with disability. She is the Chairperson of National Forum of Women with Disabilities in Pakistan. Unfortunately, these are only some rare positive cases. A large number of physically challenged children are still struggling to live a dignified life.

Hundreds of such persons with disabilities (PwDs) even today face discrimination and embarrassment routinely. The state and central governments are trying their best to ensure equality and social justice for these people. We already have laws that ensure rights and rehabilitation of PwDs such as: Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992, Persons with Disabilities (Equal opportunities, Protection of (Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 and National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999.

India signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) back in 2008. Recently, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment also carved out a dedicated department for PwDs. State governments run different scheme for PwDs; the central government has a pension scheme, scholarship schemes and several other programmes for PwDs. India still lags far behind other parts of the world on several fronts, which is why PwDs continue to encounter a raft of challenges in their day to day lives.

India also hosted the first International World Congress on Community Based Rehabilitation for PwDs, which was attended by over 1200 delegates from 72 countries in Agra. However, the rampant insensitivity of people in general and the powers that be have all but negated these efforts. Take the World Congress for example. Even as the delegates discussed their welfare, a group of disabled people protested outside for the rollback of a controversial new rule of the UP government that stated that only people with a 100 per cent disability (as opposed to the previous 40 per cent) would be eligible for free bus passes.

While they tried to take their appeal to the Commissioner of Police, Agra, the police decided to break up the demonstration. “The policemen tried to snatch away the letter we had prepared to submit to the commissioner. When we resisted, they dragged us down the street, tore down our placards and tried to beat us back with lathis,” said Kuwar Pratap Sisodia, president of Manav Kalyan Trust. The District Magistrate Ajay Chauhan has predictably been unavailable for comment despite repeated efforts to contact him.

Part of the problem stems from the socio-economic structure of our country. “In many societies, people with disabilities are confronted with barriers at every turn,” said Dr Etienne Krug, Director of the Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability at the World Health Organization, while talking to TSI. “These include stigma and discrimination; lack of adequate health care and rehabilitation services; and inaccessible transport, buildings and information. Community-based rehabilitation helps to overcome these barriers, by making optimal use of local resources to improve not only access to rehabilitation services, but also to address the broader needs of people with disabilities, by ensuring participation and enhancing their quality of life,” he added.

Moreover, most of the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working for the welfare of PwDs are based in urban areas. According to a survey conducted by National Trust, in as many as 209 districts of the country, there is no NGO for the welfare of PwDs. Consequently, people living in rural areas don't get the benefits they are entitled to.

Also, according to Bhushan Punani, Executive Director of Andhjan Mandal, most people who register for benefits as disabled come from the educated middle class. The people who truly need assistance, the rural poor, are not even aware of their rights.

Here, the state administration is equally to blame. They are yet to find the exact numbers of PwDs in India. After persistent demands of organisations working for PwDs, a section was added for people with disability during Census 2001. According to Census 2001, the number of PwDs was 2.19 crore with 75 per cent of PwDs living in rural areas.

A year later in 2002, data collected by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) showed that the number of PwDs was 1.85 crore. As this led to confusion in the efforts to ascertain the exact number of PwDs in the country, seven types of disabilities were included during Census 2011.

However, the data on physically challenged people in India is conspicuously missing in the Census report. It mentions almost all other sections including sex ratio, rural and urban population, children, literacy and others but not the number of disabled people. This suggests widespread apathy and an indifferent attitude towards such people.

Furthermore, even though India signed the UNCRPD charter in 2008, it is yet to have a comprehensive law on disabilities. Many countries already have well-structured laws before signing the charter. China, Malaysia and Singapore are far ahead of India in terms of ensuring rights, protection and accessibility to PwDs. In the United States, PwDs are included in every other law to make sure they are not alienated from the society.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment came up with a draft of Right to Person with Disability Bill, 2012, which has now been sent to state governments (Disability is a state subject) for their comments. The approach of the state governments is such that only 10 states have sent their comments, even after the ministry had set a deadline of November 30.

While speaking to TSI about the current draft of Right to PwDs Bill, Punani, also a member of the drafting committee, said, “We wanted a very strong system to safeguard the interests of PwDs by providing a strong and effective legal system, which has been diluted in the current draft. It is taking too long to be put in place. We have already waited for four years for this law.”

Meanwhile, as the government drags its feet on the issue of the disability, the widespread lack of sensitivity towards them aggravates matters further. People with disabilities continue to be treated with the requisite degree of understanding.

Tom Shakespeare, technical officer, Disability and Rehabilitation Department in WHO, who recently attended the World Congress on CBR, said, “When I went to see Taj Mahal, people stared at me and looked at me as though I was an object of pity. Instead of clicking Taj Mahal's pictures, they started taking my snapshots. This is the attitude of people here towards the PwDs.”

If we can eradicate an endemic disease like polio through vaccination and awareness programmes, why can't we change the attitude of people towards PwDs and make India a better place for them? This question, among many others, remains unanswered.

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Posted By: Bhushan Punani | Ahmedabad | December 15th 2012 | 12:12
Great article, very well done, I appreciate efforts of Pratham

Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017