John Hockenberry. Sadhna Dhand. Stevie Wonder. Stephen Hawking. Javed Abidi.
What do all these personalities have in common? Except for the pure genius that they all are, they all have disabilities. The disabilities range from lack of vision to motor neuron diseases. These people and many others like them are real-life examples of how with the provision of appropriate and much-needed facilities, combined with a keen sense of dedication and willpower, one can achieve anything one sets their mind to.
This is where the role of those in power comes into play. In a country like India, where people with disabilities form about 2.21% of the total population, out of which 69% are from the rural areas, I think it should be our leaders and our ministers who must step forward and stop with their vote-bank politics, and for once strive towards working for the ones in need of good policies and infrastructure, to ensure that their basic human rights are in place. But, it took about a year for the government to be actually held responsible for the promises made under the same.
Although one can argue that initiatives like the ‘Accessible India Campaign’ have been concrete steps in the right direction, wherein the government aimed at coming up with an index to measure and rate the design of disabled-friendly buildings throughout the country. Along with all this, one of the names above is a clear example as to why we, as a country, need stricter measures to prevent discrimination and promote upliftment of the condition of people with disabilities.
Javed Abidi, the founder of the Disability Rights Group, was an Indian activist and also the former director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), also an alumnus of Wright State University in Ohio. He was one of the few who actually decided to do something to address the needs of persons with disabilities, and that is exactly why India must take dire steps to provide with similar facilities.
Aiming towards sensitisation is not the sole criterion for progress. Our governments and people must continue to push for accessibility in educational institutions. This is something our politicians and policymakers must realise as soon as possible, for the cracks in the system continue to widen with every successive term and the quality and access to basic rights continue to deteriorate, even after 70 years of independence.
You don’t have to do a lot to understand the extent and depth of the many problems persons with disabilities face in the country. In this piece on YKA, Vandita Sariya talks about Ajay Savla, a wheelchair-bound man in his 20s, who noticed the poor maintenance of transport facilities and how it impeded access for persons with disabilities, even in the supposedly very progressive city of Mumbai. With the two main modes of public transport, the buses and trains lacking the basic amenity of a ramp, it becomes almost impossible for persons with disabilities to access, let alone use these modes to traverse long distances.
Although there are separate seats on trains and buses for persons with disabilities, they become inaccessible as there aren’t any authorities/personnel to keep a check and the compartments tend to get over-crowded. The overcrowding results in increased difficulty for people with disabilities to commute. Consequently, if they can’t afford private transport, it gets very challenging, and they’re compelled to submit to the inadequacies of infrastructure, the lack of political will and a general sense of apathy from able-bodied persons.
Dr Anita Ghai, a leading disability rights activist, writes about the lack of social awareness and decency towards people with disabilities, that ultimately builds up to the entire system being riddled with problems and carelessness regarding the issue of accessibility. The life of Dr Ghai reflects the stigma that continues to surround the discussion on persons with disabilities in a highly religion-driven society like India. With her entire childhood being a door to door journey of babas and gurus, one can clearly see the deep mental divide against people with certain disabilities.
This mentality and problematic thought processes are reasons for the alienation faced by these individuals. For example, believing in a pseudo-God or a ‘Baba’ for the treatment of a person with a disability results in more people believing that having a disability has something to do with ‘divine intervention’ and ‘supernatural’ causation.
As a result, people’s daily decisions come from a place of apathy and indifference where they’re not taking the right steps, like not electing a leader who aims to improve the situation, or not calling out certain movies/shows that tend to influence a similar mindset. This, according to me, is one of the reasons that we, as a country, have been lacking in the implementation of stricter laws against discrimination and a stronger education policy to sensitize people against this inherent bias.
Coming back to the topic of the untapped treasure of talent and genius in persons with disabilities, let us look at how strong our country’s educational structure has been in providing them with the basic resources they deserve. According to the members of the NCPEDP, less than 1% of the country’s total number of educational institutions are disabled friendly. With about 12 million persons with disabilities being under the age of 30, the question of accountability towards the availability of appropriate educational infrastructure and facilities has been staring at the government for years now. This effect, as bad as it is in metropolitan cities and bigger colleges, worsens as one goes down to the provisions available in the rural areas.
For example, in my college, here at BITS Goa, one has to squint hard to look for provisions that support individuals with disabilities. With the availability of a ramp to connect the academic block to the main street, there’s a rough patch between the two that is not navigable for individuals on wheelchairs or other support systems, especially in the monsoons which are typical to the region of Goa.
Apart from this, there seem to be no disabled-friendly toilets in a lot of the older hostels. The problem is further amplified by the absence of both ramps and lifts in all of the hostels in the college. On asking one of the footballers in my college who went through a major leg injury, about the current accessibility here, he said, “Although the college’s no attendance policy helps students to deal with injuries, yet those these everyday barriers must make it almost impossible for students with disabilities to navigate to classes, as the entire academic block is full of steps.” Being one of the leading institutes for technical research in our country, the lack of such measures show you the kind of attention accessibility receives from those in power.
Expanding our reach to briefly look at the state of accessibility in the country’s major educational institutions, now let us look at some specific statistics. According to the census of 2011, about 45% of the country’s disabled population weren’t provided resources to gain basic literacy. Adding to this, only 4.4% of the total population manages to study up to the level of graduation. Even after the availability of a reservation policy for 3% of the total seats for persons with disabilities, a survey by NCPDEP found out that only 0.5% of these seats are put to use, owing to the institute’s lack of an accessible campus. Beginning at the top of the society’s educational standards, I’ll now try and analyze the availability of provisions and facilities for people with disabilities in various colleges of our country.
Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay: Although, vehicles are allowed for students with disabilities to commute throughout the campus, and there are certain on-campus groups like ‘Abhyuday’ that continue to support persons with disabilities through their weekly schedule, yet the campus continues to lack on the availability of disabled-friendly toilets. The new hostels across the college has lifts, and the administration ensures that any student with a disability or physical ailment gets a room on the ground floor for shorter walks. All in all, the campus stands out to be one of the most accessible in India, which seems justified given the stature and funding it receives throughout the year.
Miranda House, Delhi: With strong and varied political stands in a place like the Delhi University, it comes as no surprise for the college to have an efficient system of provisions for persons with disabilities. With a collaborated effort between students and their enabling cell, Lakshita, Miranda House has succeeded in the development of various technical support systems, like talking signages for people with visual disabilities throughout the campus and the use of QR codes to ease their experience throughout their stay. Although, the use of these facilities stay limited to the areas with WiFi connectivity, yet, they seem to be encouraging discussion and work in the right direction. The administration gives special attention to ramps and accessible reading rooms, as conveyed by a student of Miranda House. All these facilities combined with a sensitive student body has made the environment in the college much more amicable and hospitable for persons with disabilties.
Christ University, Bangalore: On talking with one of the students of the college, I realized that there was a feeling of oneness amongst the peers and the faculty as well. Together, they’ve succeeded amazingly in making the college facilities highly accessible. The entire campus is said to have ramps and lifts, people with disabilities continue to form a sizeable portion of the staff as well as the students. In 2013, a campaign called ‘Enable the Disabled’ was undertaken by some students that aimed towards sensitizing everyone about the rights that are held by everyone, irrespective of their physical or mental conditions. This, combined with a barrier-free environment shows the dedication of this tier-1 college towards maintaining accessibility in the campus.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai: After my interview with Fahad Ahmad, the general secretary for the student union at TISS, I got quite an insight into the workings of their college administration regarding the provisions for accessibility. With a rare feature of special libraries to specifically support those in need and a complete framework of ramps and lifts in every hostel, people with disabilities live a comparatively easier life in the TISS campus. Although the absence of a barrier-free zone to ensure smooth movement for people with disabilities remains an issue to be discussed, the college’s forwardness is reflected in the creation of hostels for individuals with special needs, that has facilities like disabled-friendly toilets and extra rooms for one’s parents to stay in. During the interview, I was also informed as to how the administration aims to work with the ‘Centre for Disabilities Studies and Action’ towards making more decisions that integrate the needs of those with disabilities.
Thapar University, Patiala: The college premises has hostels with lifts and special enabled living areas with facilities like ramps and disabled-friendly toilets. Apart from this, people with disabilities are allowed to bring a vehicle for the ease of transportation throughout the campus. Although, this seems a futile attempt for those who use wheelchairs, yet, it is seen as a step in the right direction, by the authorities.
According to my analysis of the aforementioned colleges, it seems evident that the definition of accessibility for many educational institutions is quite a cliched one. With most of them limiting their support to the creation of ramps and lifts, the current infrastructural scenario portrays the limited sphere of our thinking regarding issues of people with disabilities. Although the spectrum of limbic ailments seems to have been traversed, benefits for those who suffer from visual or hearing impairments still remains deficient. Most of the tier-2 and some of the tier-1 colleges of our country fail to provide a barrier-free zone for those with special needs. As a result, this continues to be one of the most basic and important demands put forward by various activist groups for disabled people. With a handful of colleges that tend to the needs of people with mental disabilities or hidden ailments like diabetes even, we continue to curb our society’s capability to fight against the stigma surrounding the same.
Tending to problems like these is surely not an easy step, but with appropriate measures and an overall blanket of sensitization, education, and approachability, I feel sure of the fact that total accessibility isn’t too long of a shot for a country like ours. This has been proven time and again by various programs and schemes that are undertaken by our government to fight the battle of inaccessibility. For example, the Accessible India Campaign released in 2015 was based on direct guidelines from the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD). One of the major steps taken by this campaign has been the building of an online library called Sugamya Pustakalaya, that aims to provide accessible material to all its members. Although this has been a step in the right direction, yet, the lack of publicity and awareness about the same has led to only 400 of almost 1800 government websites to be made accessible.
Moreover, the combined response of the state governments across the country has been nothing less than pathetic, with only 3 of the total 29 to be labelled as ‘very good’ by a survey under this campaign. Another instance of our democracy’s combined success in the field of improvement of accessibility is the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill. The Bill, although released just in 2016, amends the number of ailments considered as a disability by the law, from 7 to 21. Along with this, the bill guarantees a right to education to any child between the age of 6 and 18 years, who suffers from at least 40% of any disability listed in the document, otherwise known as benchmark disabilities.
With the already existing bills and laws in place, I feel it is high time that the government decides to bring accessibility to the front seat. A step to implement this thought would be the effective lowering of taxes on medical equipment needed by people suffering from disabilities. While the government continues to play its part, I also feel that it is us, the common crowd that might work towards removing the dishonor attached to being taped to a wheelchair. Sensitizing and educating our kids, calling out discrimination and lack of inaccessibility wherever required, is how the voters must take their stand. This entire procedure combined with a united voice that continues to demand better provisions for people with disabilities in this developing country of ours will surely result in more people attending colleges and media of higher education and hence resulting in a higher probability of crowning India as the home to the next Stephen Hawking. It is us, the aware minds who must stand up for the rights of all individuals and only then can we aim to progress as a whole.
One country. One path.