India is home to 21 million people living with some disability or the other. According to the data published by the 2001 Census, this forms 2.1% of the Indian population. On December 16, 2016, the Lok Sabha passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill which increased the listed number of disabilities from seven to 21 and stipulated a jail term and fine for discrimination against persons living with disabilities. It is then pertinent to question our perspective on the way we view a person with disability. More often than not, charity is seen as the right way of dealing with the insensitivity of general public towards a person with a disability. The phrase ‘person with disability’ itself is the product of the struggle of several disability rights activists who’ve fought the world to put the ‘person’ before the ‘disability’. But the question we need to ask is: has the Disability Rights Movement, which took birth alongside the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, found favor in India?
The answer to this has to be examined from the viewpoint of the person with disability. The use of terms like ‘divyangjan’ that precede any social security initiative unveiled by the government is a clear departure from the social model that lays emphasis on the strengths and abilities of an individual with disability. Disability activists are of the opinion that the persons with disability are looking for ‘parity and not charity’. Labelling of persons with disabilities has been found to have a negative effect on their productivity according to research. Early on in life if a child is called a ‘slow learner’ and excluded from regular interaction with other students, it can have a devastating impact on the child’s social adaptability and interaction skills.
The attitude of the general public towards persons with disabilities is that of sympathy and not empathy. This explains why the public transport users vacate their seats for persons with disability but occupy the seats reserved for them at the same time. I had conducted a study on accessibility issues faced by the persons with disabilities traveling in the Mumbai metro, as a student of disability studies in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Lack of empathy turned out to be the most quoted problem they faced, followed by things like unhelpful signs, hostile co-passengers, and infrastructural problems like absence of ramps, poorly constructed elevator landings, and pathways that won’t allow smooth passing of wheelchairs. The anomalies associated with lack of proper infrastructure are many, and they come with dire consequences for those dealing with the inadequacies of the system on a daily basis.
The disconnect between the essential services and the means of reaching the services severely affects the independence of the person with disabilities and compels them to compromise their independence. We need to remember that the most valued thing for any individual is his freedom. The Accessible India campaign is a step in the right direction for the redressal of accessibility issues.
Access audits of important government buildings frequented by local people should be conducted. Access audits ensure that the infrastructure is accessible to a wider section of the population including the elderly, pregnant women and children. India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), Article 9 of which ensures that people with disabilities get access to not only physical infrastructure but also information, communication technology, emergency services and transportation. Provision of accessible infrastructure not only helps persons with disabilities but also benefits pregnant women, elderly and children.
There is a need to spread awareness about the lived experiences of persons with disabilities. Exhibitions, formal meetings in the neighborhood, and the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the welfare board of residential colonies are important and necessary steps that need to be taken. In the event of an emergency, it is necessary to devise steps to evacuate the persons with disabilities on a priority basis.
Observing a person with disability doing everyday chores feels like a miracle to the uninitiated, but if you try talking to a person with disability, you will realise that this is just everyday life for them. Differentiating the miracle from the mundane is where making a difference should begin. To quote the eminent activist Lilla Watson: “If you are here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”