Volume 5 Issue 3 - February 01, 2007

The Invisible Minority

The Times of India has chosen Disability as one of the themes for its ‘India Poised’ campaign. The following article by Javed Abidi, Convenor, Disabled Rights Group, is part of the series in this focus area. This is an unabridged version of the one published in The Times of India on 25 January 2007.

Conservative estimates suggest that 5-6 per cent of India’s population is affected by one disability or the other. In other words, this Nation has 60 to 70 million disabled citizens who according to me form an ‘Invisible Minority’.

The disabled citizens of India are invisible not because they don’t exist! They are not seen at market places or cinema halls or in parks; or in colleges and universities because both, the built environment as well as the transportation system are not just unfriendly but at times hostile. Disabled People are not able to venture out without compromising their safety and dignity.

In the 60th year of our Independence and 10 years after the enactment of The Disability Act of 1995, New Delhi – the capital of Modern India – does not have disabled-friendly buses. For God’s sake, you can’t make Delhi’s public transport accessible by putting Braille plates on autos or by claiming practically every second year that the bus shelters are once again being made barrier-free! Transportation is a serious problem and needs to be dealt with in a serious manner. More importantly in a time bound manner. Had D.T.C. introduced just 2 disabled-friendly bus routes per year since the enactment of the law in 1995, by now at least 20 buses and their routes would have been made accessible in this city.

A lot of people, including Hon’ble Chief Minister, are under the impression that Delhi Metro is disabled-friendly. Tragically, the truth is very different. There is no doubt any more that even a futuristic project like the Delhi Metro lost its way after all the tall promises, decided to cut corners and as a result, a lot of its entrances and exits are not barrier-free.

Easy, accessible and economical public transportation is the key of any person’s freedom of movement. More so in the case of disabled people. If they can’t even venture out of their homes, if they can’t travel from one point in the city to the other point, effectively they are rendered ‘handicapped’. That is why in the disability movement, we often say that it is not our disability that handicaps us but the environment around us that is handicapping.

Next to transportation, it is the built environment which imprisons a disabled person and stereotypes him as a ‘helpless’ human being! In 1989, I cast my vote in favour of my Nation by deciding to leave behind the so-called comforts of an American city, and by coming to Delhi as a wheelchair user to settle down here. Some strongly felt it was a ‘mistake’. I still don’t think so but the hard truth is in the 17 years that have gone by and inspite of having a law for over a decade now, Dilli Haat is the only place in Delhi where I can move around freely on my wheelchair! Everywhere else, I am ‘dependent’ on someone. In America, my neighbourhood McDonald offered me a preferential parking, an easy to negotiate ramp and even an accessible toilet in case I sipped too many icy colas. In New Delhi, the McDonald management revolts when I ask for the very same considerations. And it is not just them. P.V.R., the mascot of modern cinema viewing, does the same. So does Ansal Plaza and N.I.I.T. and all others.

It is not just the avenues of pleasure that are inaccessible. Education is equally inaccessible too. Only those who are minimally disabled are able to access education; others either don’t gather enough courage or give up mid-way. As I write this article, there is a brilliant wheelchair girl who was earlier denied hostel accommodation at the prestigious Symbiosis Law College in Pune and who is now having to live in a private rental set-up because the hostel of her college in the Delhi University is also not disabled-friendly. The Rs. 15,000/- per month expenditure that she and her family are having to bear is like a punishment tax imposed upon her by this Nation for having been born disabled.

Without education and access, one can’t even think of employment or empowerment or rehabilitation. Millions of our disabled citizens have their fate caged in the present scenario. Laws and policies are there but only on paper. Promises have been made several times over, but not yet fulfilled. Firm political will is missing. Some say that it is so because we are not considered to be ‘vote bank’. Others say that our protests are not loud enough.

There is a very serious discourse in the disabled community that we should now escalate our Movement. Some argue we should break a few window panes and burn one or two buses. That may get our cause the desired attention! I personally think that if that were to happen, it would be a rather sad day in the history of this 60-year-old Nation.

Being old is not good enough. The Nation must also mature. And an expected good sign of that ‘maturity’ would be to not just cater to certain minorities because they happen to be vote banks, but to look after all those who are truly marginalised.

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