In July 2019, I attended a workshop conducted by Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) on disability rights. I felt like a huge bubble that I was living in had just been popped through this workshop, as until then I had been completely oblivious to the ‘invisible minority’, i.e. people with disabilities and how they lead their lives.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 is a great tool to hold people in power responsible for their duties, and to begin a journey of advocacy. I, along with other participants who were predominantly from the disabled community, learnt how to draft and file RTI applications on different issues, analyse the response, and further take steps to advocate change so that the issues faced by persons with disabilities can be reconciled.
By working with people with disabilities, I realized how inaccessible the society I lived in was. A majority of the conversations about movies, news, art, websites, built environment, and something as basic as the entrance into a park, are inaccessible to people with disabilities, in one form or the other.
In order to draft RTIs, I was tasked to hold meetings with a cross-disability group. For this, as an organiser, I needed to ensure that the locations were wheelchair-accessible and easy to get to for people with orthopaedic disabilities, and further, to make the meeting completely accessible and inclusive, a sign language interpreter was present.
Sign language interpreters are just as important to a deaf person as a cane or screen readers are to the blind or ramps to wheelchair users. When there isn’t an ISL interpreter they would have to resort to lip-reading, only catching bits and pieces of the conversation around them or just straight up being completely left out.
Before 1995, until the signing of the Proclamation of Equality and Full Participation of People with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region and the Persons With Disabilities (PWD) Act was enacted by Parliament, people with disabilities were not treated like human beings.
To quote an article by Martand Jha that traces the history of India’s disability rights movement – “Most of these people were either seen as beggars or in better cases they were associated with the field of music. Even the system thought of them as a liability; these people were considered to be of little use to society and hence their concerns were severely disregarded. Many people thought of disability as the result of someone’s previous life’s sins and thus held them responsible for their present condition. This absurdity led to various forms of injustices in India.”
The next big step in the Disability Rights movement was when the Indian parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) of 2016. The Act stands as a powerful tool to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities are met and they can live a life of dignity with equal access to opportunities and replaced the PWD Act, 1995. It has provisions relating to accessibility, reservations and protection while seeking to empower persons with disabilities. Like the RTI Act, the RPWD act also helps in advocacy measures.
The movement to establish the rights of persons with disabilities has been ongoing for over 40 years. It is baffling that they are still not treated or seen as equals in our country and as a person without a disability, I too in the past have contributed to the community’s invisibleness. Until I was sensitized, these issues were never a part of my understanding.
A WHO report says that there are 15% of people with disabilities in India. Disability rights activists also say that 10% to 15% of the Indian population is disabled. But, since the Census data says 2.21% of people constitute people with disabilities in India, the government does not seem to take the disabled community seriously. We choose not to see people with disabilities.
Also, since they are one of the most marginalized section of society they are never in the circles that we have our interactions in and really drives home the point as to why we only see a few persons with disabilities out and about in our daily lives. Some of the factors leading to this are discrimination at the workplace, unequal employment opportunities, no access to education, lack of accessible surroundings, and the ableist society we are a part of.
Today, in these trying times of a global pandemic, people with disabilities are left out yet again. Through the meetings held by JAF with various people with disabilities a lot of issues they were facing have come to light. To name a few issues, beginning with the information that was circulated about COVID-19 back in March being inaccessible to them, caregivers not being provided with passes during the long periods of complete lockdowns which left the persons receiving care completely at their own mercy.
The news given by the PM was not interpreted in sign language except for in one channel which had an extremely small display of the sign language interpretation. Online classes are still non-inclusive. For example, notes were not provided in accessible formats. PWDs were further not given preference at grocery stores and ill-treated.
JAF had launched a webinar series which started in April. It focused on issues of Taking Stock of Disability Rights Advocacy in India & Steps Ahead, Disability Perspective on Art and Poetry as tools of Advocacy, Data and Disability, The Role of Youth as Key Stakeholders, Political Participation and Accessible Elections, The Meaning of Accessibility: Then and Now, Using Media and Social Media to do Effective Advocacy, Grassroots Perspective on Disability Rights covered by exceptional speakers like Rama Krishnamachari, Nipun Malhotra, Abhishek Anicca, Dr Malvika Iyer, and so many others. Their stories were truly inspiring and yet again, an eye-opener.
I used to be apprehensive about approaching and talking to people with disabilities but only by doing so, I have broken this barrier that I had as a person without a disability. We need to understand disability as a part of human diversity. As diverse individuals, it is true that they do face a lot of barriers.
Many of these barriers are due to the perceptions and attitudes of society and the physical inaccessible environment. I feel that rather than turning away from them or ‘outcasting’ them we need to be more inclusive. Society needs to value people with disability and start perceiving them as a human resource capable of doing both ordinary and extraordinary things.
Some small steps that we can do to be more mindful, are, for example, when attending a webinar let’s ask ourselves, is there a sign language interpreter available? or are there transcriptions being provided? Does the movie I’m currently watching have subtitles? Does my college/institution have a ramp? Do my online classes have a sign language interpreter and are the notes being distributed in accessible formats?
I’m still on the path of being sensitized and learning how to further support the movement, and there is a lot that I still don’t know but hope to learn and bring awareness to in the coming years.
This article is written by JAF volunteer Ayesha Samah, who is a student of fine arts. You can reach the Convenor of JAF Shameer Rishad on Twitter.