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Status of disability advocacy in India

C. Mahesh, Assistant Director, Mobility India, discusses why disability advocacy in India still has a long way to go.

Picture of CBR trainees at a practical workshopDuring my brief visit in Europe I had the opportunity to meet some of the key leaders spearheading the disability movement in places such as London, Helsinki, Sweden and Norway. This was a time when I could understand, to a greater extent, the history of the disability movement and the progress achieved in the areas of disability advocacy in these countries.

I observed the evidence and the impact of the movement -- in the form of barrier-free features in many places. For example, kerbed walkways, auditory and visual signs in public places and other enabling features that promoted free access not only to persons with disabilities but also senior citizens, parents using strollers and bicyclists with their cycles in the Tube. I saw active involvement and consultation with disabled people when designing new products, infrastructure or policies, plus a specific timeframe set for the implementation of the concerns of disabled people.

Another striking aspect was that the organisations of disabled people's groups in Europe have been in existence for 10-40 years, whereas we can say that the disability movement in India is still in its infancy. In our country the idea of active involvement by disabled people in advocating their rights is just catching on. If we compare the size and population of European countries with India, we are much larger, with more than 50 million people with disabilities scattered across a diverse socio-economic-cultural background. But why is it that we as disabled people are not recognised as a force to reckon with? Why are disabled people in our country still the poorest and most deprived group in our society?

No impact despite numbers

There are many factors responsible for this situation. In my opinion there is a lack of any form of practical, psychological, and physical support available to a family with a disabled child. The level of support is indirectly proportionate to the severity of the disability. The family and the individual are on their own when faced with disability and must try to find ways of coping with that disability. Many such coping mechanisms are highly protective in nature and, unfortunately, curb the growth and development of the disabled person. Due to negative attitudes, environment/communication barriers or prohibitive travel distances, a child with disability is not allowed or does not get the opportunity to play with others, make friends, or go to school. Within the first 10 to 15 years, the growth of the child with disability is stunted. In most of the cases, this is caused due to external factors.

In almost every facet of life the person with disability has to face discrimination, which is worse among women, people in rural or economically weaker sections of society. The disabled person is most often lost in myriad other issues for survival -- lack of employment and poor public utility services such as health care and public transportation. Therefore, the argument most often posed to a disabled person is: "When able-bodied people are unemployed and unable to use public transport, why are you concerned about the problems faced by the disabled person?" As of today, we have not a single college in Bangalore which is disabled-friendly. The theory, "Survival of the fittest", is the bottomline.

Picture of a meeting

Challenges in organising disabled people

As a consequence of these disabling influences we have very few disabled people who have completed a college education and even a smaller percentage who are gainfully employed. There is a wrong perception that a vast number of disabled people in our country are uneducated, unemployed; therefore, they come to be perceived as a liability. All these pose major challenges to organise disabled people. This is in contrast to European countries where disabled people have access to a decent education.

Added to this problem are very poor Indian social security systems and the means by which schemes for the disabled are designed. These schemes are primarily designed by the Disability Welfare Department in each state. Typically, 80 per cent of the budget is spent on providing disability pensions, which is a paltry sum of Rs 100 to 1-2 per cent of the disabled people who are below the poverty line. There is little money in the departmental budgets to do anything more meaningful. Disability is generally not seen as a cross-cutting agenda for other departments or ministries.

We do have the Persons with Disability Act of 1995, which calls for equal opportunities, protection of rights and non-discrimination. However, the actions taken under the Act lack mechanisms to ensure its implementation and thus make a difference in the lives of disabled people. This Act is applicable only to government or government-sponsored institutions. In the age of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, private enterprises and service providers do not fall under the auspices of the Act. This huge sector of society too has a key role to play in improving the quality of life among disabled people.

Affirmative action

The disability movement in our country is very weak and scattered. Nevertheless, in a few areas there have been instances of affirmative actions for disabled people. For the first time, disability has been included in the policies of other Ministries. The Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development, has provided 3 per cent reservation for disabled people in all its development schemes. The Ministry of Education is promoting 'Universal primary education" through the 'Sarva Siksha Abhiyan'. There is still a lot of ignorance on ways of including disabled people in the developmental programme and in education. The school enrollment of children with disabilities is high, but are the students integrated into the total classroom environment?

Unlike western societies, the disability movement in India is still dominated by non- disabled or professionals in the field of rehabilitation. There is more emphasis on health services. However, there are some positive beginnings, some organised movements, by disabled people. These groups tend to focus on welfare issues such as enhancing the disability pension or providing free bus passes for disabled people. More recently, we are seeing a slow shift where groups are moving towards rights issues with a social perspective.

There is a long way to go in improving the status of disabled people in India. There is a need to popularise issues affecting disabled people and to strengthen/support the initiatives of disabled people's movement.

C. Mahesh can be contacted at: Mobility India, 1st and 1st 'A' Cross, J.P. Nagar II Phase, Bangalore 560 078. Telfax: +91-80-26494444, +91-80- 26492222; Email: e-mail@mobility-india.org, mahesh@mobility-india.org; Website: www.mobility-india.org