Logo of Disability News and Information Service (DNIS)


Walk to Freedom to Disability Pride – still a long way to go

Meenu Bhambhani participated in America's first-ever Disability Pride Parade in Chicago in July 2004. Her thoughts turned to our own Walk to Freedom and its place in the disability movement. Here she examines the current situation in the backdrop of the tenth anniversary year of the Disability Act.

Picture of Walk to Freedom which has become a rallying point for the disability movement in IndiaLast year, on July 18, 2004, I got an opportunity to participate in Americas first ever Disability Pride Parade in Chicago. It was also an opportunity to share with the American disability community how we, in India, celebrate disability. This week-long event was celebrated to mark the 14th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The event, in many respects, was similar to the Walk to Freedom we celebrate in India every year on December 3rd World Disability Day.

Disability Pride is a new concept that borrows from Gay Pride, Womens Movement and the Civil Rights movement. Sarah Triano, Americas leading disability rights activist, says Disability Pride represents a militant act of self-definition, a purposive valuing of that which is socially devalued, and an attempt to untangle ourselves from the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with our disabilities and identity. At that point I was feeling proud of the fact that in India, we have been having such a celebration since 1997, under the name of Walk to Freedom. Some of my fellow disability activists in the US said the name Walk to Freedom suggested that disabled people in India are chained and that they need to be freed from shackles.

Their statement raised several questions why do we call our celebration Walk to Freedom, why do we celebrate it on December 3, and why do we not celebrate our successes on the anniversary of our very own Persons with Disabilities Act? In the US, July 26 symbolises the culmination of years of disability activism (which started somewhere in the 1960s). Its passage is recognition of years of struggle and Disability Pride Parade symbolises the arrival of disability as an identity group.

How we got this Act?

On February 7, 2005, we entered the 10th year of the notification of Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights, and Full Participation) Act, 1995. The passage of the Act certainly marked a new beginning for the social perception of the rights, capacities, and lives of disabled persons in India. It was a consequence of the sustained advocacy campaign led by the Disabled Rights Group (DRG) which used varied tactics in the weeks and months following its birth in 1994, including meetings, sit-ins, conferences, seminars, workshops, street demonstrations, protests, agitations and marches. It was through DRGs intense lobbying which continued, unceasingly, for more than a year that disabled people in India achieved the passage of the Persons with Disabilities Act in December 1995.

What does the law entail?

Disability activists meeting the President of India, APJ Kalam, on the eve of World Disability Day, 2002. The law proscribes discrimination and guarantees full and equal participation in the socio-economic and political mainstream. There are an estimated 70 million disabled people in India. The Act places them on par with the rest of the citizens of this country in respect of education, vocational training and employment. For the first time, the Act calls upon the private sector to respond to the employment needs of disabled people. It also streamlines and extends the services for disabled people: for example, the reservation of government posts has been extended to group A and B posts. The Act entrusts the State with the responsibility to prevent disabilities, provide medical care, education, training, employment and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities. Furthermore, the State must create barrier-free environments, protect the rights of disabled people and counteract any abuse or exploitation.

The Act also provides sufficient mechanism to implement the intentions and provisions of the act through the constitution of Coordination and Executive Committees at central and state levels with adequate representation of disabled people in them and the office of Commissioner at the federal as well as state level. It defines disability and recognises seven disabilities that are entitled to the benefits of the Act. The categories that have been left out of this Act have been included in the National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999. The PWD Act is designed to encourage fuller participation of disabled people in the community and eliminate discrimination.

Where are we today?

In retrospect, it is debatable whether we, as a responsible democratically governed nation, have encouraged (not to speak of ensured) full participation of people with disabilities as per the mandates the Act. Where are we, today, nine years after the Act was enforced?
Have we achieved anything meaningful in all these years? More importantly, how have we achieved what we have accomplished and, for how long do we need to continue to adopt similar tactics to ensure justice to people with disabilities? Who do we hold responsible for the current state of affairs vis--vis disability bureaucrats, politicians, policy implementers, corporate sector, disability community or the nation at large?

The process of implementation of the PWD Act began with the decision of Honorable Supreme Court in Javed Abidi vs. Indian Airlines, Union of India and States case forcing the Government, both Union and States, to appoint the Chief Commissioner at the Centre and Commissioners in the States, respectively. The way these Commissionerates have been working raises questions about the Governments sincerity in implementing the provisions of the Act. Most states still do not have a full time Commissioner. In many cases the Secretary or Director of Social Welfare has been given the additional charge of Commissioner, which has relegated the Office of Disability Commissioner to a subordinate/secondary position in the Department. Except for Karnataka, and a couple other states, the Office of Disability Commissioner is reduced to replicating and duplicating the welfare oriented work of Social Welfare Department. In Rajasthan the post of Commissioner has been lying vacant for more than a year.

Disability activists have submitted countless memorandums and held several rounds of protests and hunger strikes, but to no avail. It seems that the government is in denial of the existence of disability, and reacts to external pressure exercised either through disruptive tactics of street protests or judicial intervention. The inclusion of disability in the Census 2001, the Railway Budget and the Union Budget; the extension of reservation to higher civil services; and admission to educational institutions of all levels have all resulted from sustained advocacy by disability activists.

Even after nine years since the Act came into being, the government is yet to announce incentives for the corporate sector to promote employment of people with disabilities in the private sector. The NSSO 58th Round (2003) puts the rate of unemployed disabled at 74% and the government is yet to announce any measures to reduce this figure. Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All), despite a significant disability component, classroom inclusion of children with disabilities is not happening. Only the medical needs of such children are being identified and they are being given assistive devices like wheelchairs, crutches, hearing aids, eye-glasses, etc. What good are these devices if schools and transport are inaccessible, teachers are untrained and insensitive, resources are non-existent and attitudes are callous and hostile?

One need not go any further and just take a glance at the Performance Appraisal Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which reveals that: the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 is being poorly implemented although eight years have elapsed after its enactment. Adequate measures, as envisaged under the Act, have not been taken for prevention of disabilities through early detection, awareness campaigns and training of staff of Primary Health Centres. The development of educational infrastructure for the disabled, research for new assistive devices and specialised training of teachers have remained weak areas. The pace of identification of posts in State Government establishments which could be reserved for persons with disabilities, has been slow. Special Employment Exchanges could provide placement to only 1% persons with disabilities registered in the live register each year between 1998 and 2000. The Government has failed to ensure 3 % reservation of persons with disabilities in poverty alleviation schemes, thus depriving them of the opportunity of economic rehabilitation. Adequate steps for non-discrimination of PWD in transport, on road and in the built environment has not been taken.

How many more walkathons to freedom?

Can we feel proud or be smug about our achievements under such circumstances? How many walkathons to freedom do we need to cover before we reach a place of pride. We are still struggling for the basics and trying to put the system into place. There is little reason for cheer and complacency. Disability is far from the radar screen of policymakers and implementers. The most recent example is that of the tsunami catastrophe. The focus of the government, NGOs and INGOs has been on children, women, dalits and other minorities; disability has not been on any ones agenda despite the fact that it is a cross-cutting issue. What good is the law if it exists only on paper and fails to ensure reasonably good living for people with disabilities and, thus, denies social justice? The government has to assume responsibility for providing justice and equity to its disabled citizens. It cannot take an excuse under the rider that is attached with the mandates of PWD Act within its economic limits.

At a recent World Bank Conference on disability, Nobel Laureate Economist Amartya Sen commented: in the developing world, the disabled are quite often the poorest of the poor in terms of income, but in addition their need for income is greater than that of able-bodied people, since they need money and assistance to try to live normal lives and to attempt to alleviate their handicaps some of the inputs of good living come not from personal income, but directly from social arrangements, such as institutions for public education and civic facilities.

If we want social arrangements for good and equitable living, we cannot afford to waste any more time. Nine years have passed without any change in the disability scenario. How many more years are we going to sit silently and not wake from our slumber? Will the 10th year also pass with nothing earth shattering happening? Its a wake up call and an emotional appeal to everyone disability sector, policymakers and implementers, bureaucrats, politicians and society at large. Let us not wait for a crisis to react but force everyone to move beyond charity and set achievable targets and accomplish them in the tenth year. We will then have taken a few more steps towards Disability Pride.

For more information regarding the American movement, please visit: www.disabledandproud.com