December 3, is the annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities, established by the United Nations in 1992 to “promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life”.
It is also a stark reminder of how far we in India need to go in meeting the needs of the disabled.
Differently-abled persons rights passed by United Nations:
About a billion people internationally live with a disability, with 80 per cent of these being residents of the developing world.
In 2007, the UN passed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This was a landmark step toward treating disabled persons as full members of society, rather than objects of pity or charity or, as was shamefully the norm for much of our past, fear and ridicule.
The population with disabilities constitutes the world’s largest ‘unrecognised minority’ group.
In India, according to the 2011 population census, the population with disabilities is around 26.8 million, constituting 2.21% of India’s total population.
India is a state party to the convention, and the World Bank estimates that there may be well over 40 million Indians living with disabilities.
Constitutional framework for disabled population:
Article 15(1): It enjoins on the Government not to discriminate against any citizen of India (Including disabled) on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
Article 17: No person including the disabled irrespective of his belonging can be treated as an untouchable. It would be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
Article 21: Every person including the disabled has his life and liberty guaranteed.
Article 23: There can be no traffic in human beings (including the disabled), and beggar and other forms of forced labor is prohibited and the same is made punishable in accordance with law.
Article 29(2): The right to education is available to all citizens including the disabled. No citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds.
Article 32: Every disabled person can move the Supreme Court of India to enforce his fundamental rights and the rights to move the Supreme Court.
Real problem lies in implementation of letter and spirit:
- Most Indians regard them with disdain or at best indifference to their plight.
- A significant proportion of people see a person with disabilities as an object of ‘sympathy’ and ‘pity’ thereby leading to their ‘othering’ and their treatment as a third-class citizen in the country.
- There is a lack of awareness, lack of care, and lack of good and accessible medical facilities. Further, there is a lack of accessibility, availability, and utilization of rehabilitation services.
- These factors affect the preventive and curative framework for PwDs.
- Provisions exist in law, but getting the authorities anywhere in India to implement them is another story altogether.
- The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in 2016 but our country is still largely devoid of ramps on its footpaths or government buildings.
- The best that can be said is that the passage of the law may have helped shift the treatment of disabled persons in society towards rights-focused thinking. But acting is a different matter.
Representation of differently abled people in various spheres of society:
- Indians with disabilities are far more likely to suffer from poor social and economic development.
- Shockingly, 45 per cent of this population is illiterate, making it difficult for them to build better, more fulfilled lives.
- This is compounded by the community’s lack of political representation: Despite the vast population of people with disabilities in India, in our seven decades of independence we have had just four parliamentarians and six state assembly members who suffer from visible disabilities.
- This is hardly a surprise when considering that, unfortunately, several political leaders have even used discriminatory language and derogatory comments to talk about people with disabilities.
- This lack of representation, and these general attitudes, translate directly into policy that undermines the well-being of people with disabilities.
- Last year, for example, the government inexplicably decided to depart from convention and render people suffering from cerebral palsy ineligible for the Indian Foreign Service.
- Suggesting that persons with disabilities are unable to serve their country with loyalty, devotion, and strength is an insult to them, and to any Indian who wishes to see their fellow citizens treated equally, regardless of physical condition.
- But it’s not only about ramps for wheelchairs, text-to-speech facilities for the visually challenged or sign language explanations for the deaf.
- Some of the most debilitating disabilities are those that are not apparent to the naked eye.
Preventive health programs need to be strengthened and all children need to be screened at a young age.
Kerala has already started an early prevention programme. Comprehensive Newborn Screening (CNS) programme seeks early identification of deficits in infants and reduce the state’s burden of disability.
People with disabilities need to be better integrated into society by overcoming stigma.
There should be awareness campaigns to educate and aware people about different kinds of disability.
Success stories of people with disabilities can be showcased to inculcate positive attitude among people.
Building on the extraordinary work of civil society activists, India has made some progress in the right direction.
The government has had some admirable initiatives to improve the lot of Indians with disabilities, such as the ADIP scheme for improving access to disability aids.
The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan, or Accessible India Campaign, has aimed to make public transport, buildings and websites more accessible.
But as is too often the case with this government, between rhetoric and reality there falls the long shadow of poor implementation. Unfortunately, the Accessible India Campaign has largely remained half-done since the scheme’s inception in 2015.
It is critical that the government work with civil society and individuals with disabilities to craft an India where everyone feels welcome and treated with respect, regardless of their disabilities.
Only then can we welcome the next International Day of Persons with Disabilities without a sense of shame.