The authors are students of the Young Researchers for Social Impact (YRSI) Program conducted by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). YRSI identifies promising high schoolers and builds their capacity as critical thinkers and problem solvers to produce thought-provoking solutions to pressing issues that affect our societies today. This article was written as part of the July 2020 edition of the program. The views expressed in this study are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of YLAC as an organisation.
Before the onset of the Disability Rights Movement in the 1980s, government institutions and the general public did not even consider the rights of disabled people. The movement was able to bring a change in this outlook as the activists looked at a rights-based approach in order to bring change, an approach that aims to empower people to demand human rights from institutions of power.
As a result of domestic campaigns and international lobbying, the 1995 PwD (Persons with Disability) Act was passed. But, the 1995 PwD act majorly focused on medically preventing disability through early detection and treatment and did not emphasize measures that shall empower PwDs.
The scene changed (or it was expected to change) when India signed the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007. Under this convention, it was mandatory for the Indian government to issue legal guidelines to enhance the public and political participation of persons with disabilities and make the society more accessible.
Nine years later, after continuous campaigning, a revised version of the act, RPwD Act, was passed in 2016. This act guaranteed a more accessible and inclusive society for PwDs. It also guaranteed an increase in participation of PwDs in public life through increased reservation in government and educational posts, but it failed to acknowledge the empowerment of PwDs in the political sphere.
It also failed to address social stigma. Society continues to see disabled people as ‘dependent’ and ‘defective’ and this limits people from seeing what persons with disabilities can do, over what they cannot. Professor Anita Ghai puts this disparity as “to be disabled is to be disabled by society.”
As a result of societal prejudices, and limited government intervention, persons with disabilities continue to be seen as incapable of being participants in the political sphere.
Although the World Bank estimates the number of PwDs in India to be somewhere between 40 to 80 million, yet according to our findings, till date, there have been only four PwD parliamentarians and six PwD Members of State Assemblies since independence.
Nevertheless, these few elected persons with disabilities have shown excellence in the political arena and stood out not because of their disability but because of their exceptional work.
One can look at Jaipal Reddy, afflicted with polio, he played a prominent role in the Andhra Pradesh Separation Movement, a prominent position as the oil and petroleum minister, and key roles in other fields like urban planning, science and technology, and earth sciences.
Or Sadhan Gupta, who was India’s first blind parliamentarian, considered an exceptional debater and who also founded the national federation for blind people in India.
Along with them, at the local level, many persons with disabilities have outshone. These include inspirations such as Minati Barik, who is the first female wheelchair candidate to ever win an election in Odisha (Kantabania Gram Panchayat) and who has drastically improved the hygiene and sanitation of her village, Bajapur.
Or Usha Kiran Naik, who is the General Secretary of the NGO Karnataka Vivkalachethana Sanghatane and is also Chikballapur district president of the Swaraj India party. Naik has been actively working with women with disabilities and people with HIV in Chikballapur in Karnataka.
Alongside these domestic examples, there are noteworthy examples from other countries like Marta Gabriela Michetti Illia (she, a wheelchair user, served as the Vice President of Argentina), Greg Abbott (he, paralyzed below his waist, has been the Governor of Texas), and Carla Qualtrough (she served as the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion of Canada). They have proved that disables people are as capable of being elected and subsequently participating in political life as any able-bodied person.
And yet, very few persons with disabilities participate in politics in India. A significant reason is the lack of funding. Many persons with disabilities are not able to participate in the elections because political parties are unable to spend additional funds on assistive aids that they might require during campaigning. Further, many political parties do not see PwD members as ‘able’ contestants in the first place.
None of the political parties in India has a special cell for members with disabilities, and only three political parties—BJP, INC and CPI (M)—spoke about the concerns of the disabled in their 2019 general election manifesto. No political party seems to consider persons with disabilities as a vote bank.
Another significant reason is the existence of institutional gaps that restrict a person with a disability from complete inclusion in society. Out of the 40-80 million disabled people in India, only 14.6 million people are literate. Of those, just a little over 1 million are graduates, and the situation for women is worse than for men. This shows that persons with disabilities are denied access to education. Moreover, a majority of the disabled people residing in rural parts of the country are not aware of their rights or are unable to access them, and this restricts them from being empowered.
One reason for the lack of awareness is that two-thirds of India’s states are yet to notify rules on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act passed in 2016. Other prominent reasons for lack of participation are discrimination at the workplace, inaccessible buildings, stigmatization, persons with disabilities not being able to vote discreetly, inaccessible sources of information such as websites, non-existence of interpreters in national interest speeches, use of slurs, and many more such factors.
We live in a society that blames persons with disabilities for the existence of their disability and fails to see its own shortcomings. It is the need of the hour to take appropriate steps to further inclusion, acceptance, and equality to allow people with disabilities to achieve their potential and to be known what they can, and not what they cannot do.
Authors: Aayra Walia, Ananya Agarwal, Anushka Dhankar and Penpa Dolma