By Kapil Kumar:
Disability is something which can happen to anyone and at any time. It is acquired not always by birth and can happen also by accidents in the course of one’s life. In that case, the term “temporarily able bodied” used to denote the so-called normal people by Professor Anita Ghai becomes relevant.
In my case too, this is a fact. In fact, today, I am a person who has 100% sightlessness. I did not have this disability right from my birth. I acquired it, due to some accident. By that time, I never knew or had never imagined having any disability.
Disability, either natural or acquired, carries with itself a number of superstitions and myths. More specifically, Indian society attaches the concept of ‘karma’ to disabled people. Therefore, people have prejudices towards persons with disabilities. They are generally tried to be kept away from all major activities in society. Society, often, even attempts to deprive them of their basic right of attaining education and employment. Furthermore, disabled people are regarded as either asexual or impotent.
The truth about it, I realised only after acquiring the disability. Once I became blind, I became an object of sympathy and pity. A number of times, I have heard people say, “bechara pichley janam ke karm bhog raha hai (this poor fellow is reaping the harvest of his previous birth).” Usually, people consider me to be a weak fellow, someone who is helpless. Whatever knowledge one has, whatever talent one might have does not seem to matter. Nobody cares to give serious thought to the suggestions provided by a disabled person. In a way, even in my case, attempts were made at various places to keep me away from all big events. In the case of employment too, I have some bitter experiences.
In the year 2009, I got through the written examination as well as the interview conducted for the post of a clerk at a government bank. I was called for document verification and a medical fitness test. There, I was handed a list of medical tests which I had to get done. I got them done and returned to the main branch on the said day to submit the report. The doctor at the bank refused to sign my medical report and referred my issue to the head office. When I filed a Right To Information request, I received a response telling me that I had been found unfit in the medical test. I still don’t know what the grounds were for that? And the question still persists in my mind. What is the actual definition of medical fitness?
Around 12 years ago, after completing my schooling from a special school, I entered into a new arena. I came to Delhi to pursue higher education. I got admission in one of the reputed colleges of Delhi University. There I found that, for me, the buildings were not accessible. For enjoying even the basic right of getting an education and employment, an accessible environment is required. This fact is also recognised in the Persons with disabilities Act of 1995 and in United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006. In the absence of a disabled friendly infrastructure, it becomes quite tough for a disabled person to continue with his or her education or employment.
Disabled people not only face structural barriers but also, attitudinal barriers. Usually, the institutions in which disabled people work are not found to be disabled friendly. They are not constructed in a way in which disabled people could either work or move efficiently. The phrase “job without work” explains it well. In fact, disabled persons have a lot of capabilities, they have talent and potential. But, their employers are, most of the time, not interested in making use of their capabilities.
Over the years, I have experienced that these institutional barriers demotivate students from taking admissions. Students with disabilities generally prefer those spaces which do not restrict their mobility. Not only mobility, it is also necessary that these institutions be equipped with all the required assistive devices so that admitted disabled students are able to cope with the conditions.
Besides, colleagues in almost all the institutions where disabled people either study or work are not empathetic enough to understand their limitations. Most of the time, they are found to undermine or underestimate the abilities of their disabled colleagues. Sight has a dominant role to play in their view. According to them, in the absence of it there is nothing left in the lives of people. Sighted people consider disabled people weak and fools, and thus, generally look down on them and try to make them feel inferior.
While pursuing my masters and then M.Phil., I had a number of such experiences. My classmates sometimes used to walk past me without identifying themselves so that I didn’t ask them to do some work of mine. It is also a fact that if any disabled person performs better than his or her classmates, they start discriminating against him. I have firsthand experience of it. When I started performing well at academics, my sighted classmates started to find excuses for not helping me. Moreover, without considering my limitations, they started feeling jealous of me. In one way or the other, they attempted to make me feel inferior. Therefore, it’s not only the institutional barriers which halt our journey towards success but, also, it’s the attitude of the society which is non-progressive and non-cooperative towards disabled people.
In today’s discourse, people in society talk about gender discrimination. They can be seen talking about caste discrimination. But, rarely does one talk about discrimination against disabled people. The society, which is dominated by sighted people, under the influence of ‘ableism‘, hardly attempts to raise the issues related to the lives of disabled people. Day by day, hardships faced by disabled people are increasing. Their basic needs are being neglected. But no reputed human rights activist or NGO, even tries to put forward issues of disabled people seriously in the public arena.
Disability is not merely a condition, but also an experience. A person, who in some way or the other becomes disabled, is forced to undergo traumatic experiences. Society, rather than assisting that individual to cope with the odds against him, demoralises and discourages him. That individual, in place of concentrating on his or her limitations and trying to overcome them, directs all his strength to resist the neglect which he faces in the society.
The need of the hour is to make society sensitive towards the needs of disabled individuals. Also, there is a need to make society understand that disabled persons are also human beings like others in society are. These disabled people also share the same feelings or sentiments which other members of the community share. Society must realise its responsibilities towards its disabled citizens and, therefore, not only must structural barriers be reduced but, attempts should be made towards lessening the attitudinal barriers against disabled persons also. Only such an atmosphere can help a disabled individual to lead a self-respecting and dignified life. At the end, I would like to repeat my words that disability is not acquired only by birth. It can happen to any individual at any point in his or her life.