Volume 5 Issue 4 - February 15, 2007

"We are working on a rights based approach in all our projects:" Karen Reiff

De Samvirkende Invalideorganisationer (D.S.I.), the only Danish umbrella organisation in the field of disability, has been a partner and supporter of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) for many years. Within Denmark, D.S.I.’s objective is to improve the living conditions of disabled people, and in the international arena, it is committed to the advancement of equal opportunities for disabled people. It has been involved with projects in Africa, Asia, Kosovo and Estonia. KarenReiff, Head of the International Department, D.S.I., was in India for the Strategy Workshop organised in Jaipur by N.C.P.E.D.P., and here she shares her views and experiences with Chitra S. Shankar, in an interview for D.N.I.S.

1. Please tell us briefly about D.S.I. and its work.

D.S.I. was established in 1934 and encompasses 32 member organisations in Denmark, where it represents approximately 320,000 people with disabilities and their relatives. The organisation is represented with a branch in 97 Danish counties.

Within Denmark, D.S.I.’s objective is to improve the living conditions of disabled people and to promote the implementation of the U.N. Standard Rules for the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. In the international arena, D.S.I. is also strongly committed to the advancement of equal opportunities for disabled people through establishing strong, national, decentralised and democratic organisations for them in the form of both individual and umbrella organisations. D.S.I. has been involved with projects in South Africa Uganda and India. In addition, D.S.I. is involved in Uganda with a H.I.V.A.I.D.S. project for people with disabilities. It is also involved in the African Disability Decade Programme covering five countries in Africa. The organisation has worked for three years in Kosovo and Estonia.

2. Do you draw a parallel between D.S.I. and N.D.N.?

I believe that you can draw some kind of a parallel between D.S.I. and N.D.N. D.S.I. is structured in such a way that we have 97 municipalities from where we get information about whether the policies are being implemented as they are supposed to, what kind of challenges people with disabilities face out in the municipalities, etc. They provide feedback to the D.S.I. main office in Copenhagen and they are in turn reporting and providing the necessary or relevant information to the D.S.I. branches with regard to disability, policies, and new legislations. If the branches request help in all these matters, D.S.I. provides this kind of support. So we are very dependent on the feedback we are getting from our local D.S.I. branches and they are dependent on the feedback and report from D.S.I. And I think that’s where there are some similarities between N.D.N. and D.S.I. N.C.P.E.D.P. cannot function alone unless they get feedback from the Network with regard to the kind of challenges, constraints and various needs in their states. If you get that information, you will be able to assist and support N.D.N. in the best way. So I think there is interdependence between N.C.P.E.P.D. and N.D.N., and between D.S.I. and D.S.I. branches.

However, the one difference is that N.D.N. consists of D.P.O.s and N.G.O.s or people with disabilities, but all the D.S.I. local branches consist only of people with disabilities representing different disability organisations.

3. You’ve worked in various developing countries. Is there a parallel between the work that D.S.I. is doing in India and in other countries vis-à-vis disability?

We are working on a rights based approach in all our projects and it has been such ever since we started our development work. This is something we do in Africa and in. That’s the key for changes in disability policies and so on.

The difference is that in other countries we link up with D.P.O.s. In India it is a bit different in the sense that I do not consider N.C.P.E.D.P. to be a D.P.O. But the similarity is that N.C.P.E.D.P. is doing advocacy to address the rights based approach. That’s where I think we are working in similar situations.

One other difference definitely is that in other countries, the D.P.O.sconsist of people with disabilities. But in India it is not so many people with disabilities; there are many able-bodied persons working in the disability sector. That’s why you’re probably using the term disability sector and not disability movement! We do not use the word ‘sector’ in our other countries. We only use the term ‘disability movement’. Though there is a disability movement in India, it is still in its infancy. Moreover, I think in India you still have a charity approach to disability, whereas in Africa they are more into the rights movement.

4. What is D.S.I.’s experience in the area of disability in post-conflict countries? When reconstruction happens, is it disabled-friendly?

I have worked in two post-conflict countries. One is Kosovo. The environment was not disabled-friendly there before the war. The disability movement in Kosovo tried to address the issue of accessibility because a lot of reconstruction was going to take place. I know that they managed to get a few agencies to ensure that when they reconstructed schools, they were accessible for disabled children and I also know they got some health clinics made accessible. Some Danish as well as other agencies have been involved in this process. But it is far from happening. I think that all the humanitarian agencies moving into the post-conflict areas just do not have a disability component in their programme. That is why I believe that the disability movement is very crucial in addressing these issues.

The other country is Sudan. One of the components in our project was schools. So we tried to make schools accessible, have ramps, and make clinics accessible. But other agencies working there did not think about it because it was not a part of their mandate. Again, there was no disability movement. It was just a few visually impaired people and deaf people. I did not see any physically disabled people involved.

5. Please tell us briefly about D.S.I.’s work with disabled women in various countries.

In some countries, we have supported disabled women’s organisations because we found that the D.P.O.sare often led by men, be it in the Philippines, Africa or in Nepal. It is not that they do not want to take women with disability issues on board but they do not address it. Therefore women with disabilities want to have their own organisation. What I see is a strong commitment from women with disabilities. They really want to have a voice and be included in society. I think that they managed to do quite a lot in Ghana and Uganda. In Uganda, they have an umbrella body for women with disabilities where they are raising issues with the Government or institutions with regard to problems of disabled women. In India I got the impression that women with disabilities are not organised as such to bring focus to their problems and issues.

6. Have you seen such a tool as D.N.I.S. elsewhere in the world, including the developed countries?

Such a tool might exist somewhere in the world. But so far, I have not seen anything like this in a developing country. I think it is a very good information tool with which you are addressing issues of interest for people with disabilities, and those working within the disability sector in India. What I like about it is that you are addressing issues of common interest, and political issues.

7. Where do you think D.N.I.S. stands today as a major information tool?

I think that one of the strengths is that you raise many important issues and try to share it with disabled people, N.G.O.s, ministries and other people who have an interest in disability. You should continue to develop and expand this strong information tool. When I say expanding or strengthening, it means reaching out more to people with disabilities. Those who really should benefit are people with disabilities and from the workshop I could understand maybe that link is missing. Today, it is people who have access to computers and internet who get it, and often disabled people are the most marginalised in a country like India. Therefore, it is one of the challenges for you to find a way to reach out to disabled people and see that they also get the information about rights.

8. What is your vision of the future with regard to N.D.N. and D.N.I.S.?

With regard to N.D.N., I think you should keep expanding the Network, because it is a unique network, and as I understand it is the only one in India. Everybody is talking about the importance of networking but it is very difficult to keep a network alive, from what I have seen in other places. But here, you have managed it, and that you should hold on to. But that’s where you need to consolidate, make sure that the partners you have in the Network grow strong and get the capacity so they also can feed into your work here in Delhi. My vision would definitely be to see the strength of it, where the partners see the importance of holding on to the Network, so that in ten years time you still have N.D.N. and it does not disappear.

Another vision is to see that youth with disabilities and women with disabilities become a more visible group within N.D.N. It is an important thing for N.D.N. to address. The celebration of the World Disability Day in the states and at the district level is a really great achievement because I know that India is a very complex society. But then I am thinking about women with disabilities, and if N.D.N. in the future, could advocate for women with disabilities on 08 March which is Women’s Day, it would be another great step for the disability sector.

As for D.N.I.S., my vision is that it continues to expand with regard to the number of people receiving it and definitely that people with disabilities and their families and relatives also get access to it and can see what kind of rights people with disabilities have. It would be great that if you are sitting in Nepal or Denmark or anywhere in the world, and you want to learn something about disability policies, legislations, etc., in India, you know that you can go to the website of D.N.I.S. to get valuable and trustworthy information. Another great thing would be for people to be able to use D.N.I.S. as a forum for exchange of ideas. You already have people from abroad reading D.N.I.S. but if you could reach out to more people, there will be many new things you can learn from each other.

9. Are you planning more projects in India? What are the areas you are looking at?

We are planning a new project with N.C.P.E.D.P. We have been discussing our plan to focus on N.D.N., and the expansion and consolidation of the Network. We would also like to continue with the D.N.I.S. project. Then there are the advocacy campaigns that N.C.P.E.D.P. has already taken up.

As for other projects, one of our member organisations, the Danish Hemophilia Society, has supported the Hemophilia Federation of India for many years and they are now planning to support the youth in the Federation. So that is one project that is in the pipeline.

10. How many times have you visited India? What has been your experience?

This is my fourth visit to India and the first time was back in 2001. At that time I realised that the disability movement in India was in its infancy. I believe after six years that the disability movement is still in its infancy. I do not think that much has happened in the disability organisations.

I recall that in 2001 there was a lot of discussion on the Disability Act and we met with the then Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities. We also visited N.C.P.E.D.P. and they expressed that one of the things lacking was the appointment of full-time Disability Commissioners in the states. That is where I think the difference has been made. Now there are Disability Commissioners in some of the states and it is because of the lobbying and advocacy by organisations like N.C.P.E.D.P. I see this as a positive change.

I have always enjoyed coming to India and if I look at it with a professional eye, there are committed people who are working in the sector. We have been able to work on some issues and there has also been some outcome. So from a professional view, it has really been great. From a more personal point of view, I like India. It is very colourful, the smells are very strong and I have always found the people out here to be very friendly and open-minded.

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