Those loony religious right-wingers terribly angry with Aamir Khan and declaring him to be an anti-national, seditious creature (I, for one, am fully in solidarity with Aamir), even if outraged by the front-page Times of India report in its 20th November 2015 issue of disabled candidates (or “differently abled” candidates, though by my experience, those we are talking about care little for nomenclature) having to climb 2-3 floors without a ramp or elevator to write a test for an Indian Railways job (the Indian Railways apologized and declared that they would conduct the exam again), do not ponder over these issues beyond a point. It is sad that real issues are unfortunately often neglected in India’s largely personality-centric, rhetoric-driven and identity-oriented political discourse with very abstract notions of “development”, and very many people cast their votes without reading the election manifestos.
Anyhow, coming to this point, let’s examine what the manifesto of the BJP had said on the issue of the differently abled for the national elections of 2014. It stated the following-
“About 70 million people are suffering from disability, and BJP considers it a serious neglect. The welfare and rehabilitation of disabled people is integral to our vision of a caring society and that of a responsive government. The BJP commits to:
- Enact the ‘Rights of the Persons with Disabilities bill’ (RPWD).
- Use technology to deliver low cost quality education to specially-abled students ‘in-home’ – through E-learning.
- Identify each and every special needs person across the country – establishing a web based disability registration system to issue universal ID for all applicable government benefits (healthcare, transportation, jobs, education etc).
- Ensure disabled friendly access to public facilities, public buildings and transport.
- Ensure maximum economic independence of the disabled by creating more income generation models for them.
- Support and aid voluntary organizations working for the care of the disabled.
- Provide a higher tax relief for the family member taking care of the disabled.”
Let us look at the progress made on each of these pointers, and see what constructive suggestions can be given. (I am not a supporter of the Modi-led BJP, and have been very critical of them over a variety of issues even other than religious intolerance, but blind hatred for anyone serves no purpose and it is the national interest we should care about, welcoming anyone who does anything positive in that respect, and irrespective of our political preferences, we must wish the government of the day luck in doing good for the people.)
As for the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Bill, which is meant to replace the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, let us see if it is tabled in the winter session. All political parties must collectively brainstorm and bring out a good legislation that would do justice to a neglected section of our society, and many people (including me) are glad that the opposition is willing to work with the government, legislative logjams by both the Congress and the BJP when in opposition being an issue I had discussed in some detail in an article I had written earlier, and this has been a problem leading to this crucial bill for the disabled being in cold storage too. The key issues concerning this bill have been enumerated at some length here. J&K is a state where most of the central statutes do not apply and its law on the disabled dating to 1998 is almost identical to the central one dating to 1995. Their law needs an update too.
As regards ‘in-home’ e-learning, steps in this direction have apparently been taken, and should be followed up with rigour.
As for registration, the current minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Thaawar Chand Gehlot, does seem to be keen on streamlining processes and bringing in more transparency, which is good. However, how many of us, leave alone economically backward disabled people, are aware that under the Assistance to Disabled Persons (ADIP) scheme, dating back to 1981, equipment for the disabled free of cost is available for any disabled person with a monthly income below 15000 rupees and at a subsidized rate for those with a monthly income in the range of 15000 to 20000 rupees, distributed by district authorities in camps organized by them in collaboration with the Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India (ALIMCO), a public sector undertaking (which manufactures not just artificial limbs but all kinds of products for those with various kinds of physical and mental disabilities, contrary to what its name suggests)? The Modi sarkar can, and I believe, should publicize this on the scale of the Swach Bharat campaign, and the prime minister should address this issue in his radio show, and perhaps, they can make an announcement to this effect the day after tomorrow (3rd December), the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. I would also appeal to the readers of this article to spread as much awareness of this scheme as they can. Also, those seeking to introduce cheaper technologies for the disabled in India, like Jignesh Shah, should be given, to use Modi’s language, a “red carpet” and not be subjected to the red tape.
As for disabled-friendly access to public facilities, this is something that seriously needs to be worked on, and for which every government building, marketplace and even private recreation centre must have ramps and/or elevators (with auditory signals and Braille symbols), and all public buses must be disabled-friendly. The government must ensure that this is the case across the board for at least new buildings and establishments and implement the same strictly, a contravention of the same being something that can be challenged in a court of law. After all, the UPA had introduced a rights-based development model when it comes to education, rural employment etc., though the Right to Education Act, for instance, doesn’t provide for derecognizing government schools for failing to meet the statutory infrastructure norms, but provides for the same with respect to private schools, a hypocrisy one can ill-afford. The government also needs to allocate funds across ministries to make existing buildings, which are not disabled-friendly, as disabled-friendly as possible. The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, had sought to deal with these issues, but clearer guidelines of deadlines and budget are needed, failing which in bureaucratic circles, planning often completely overlooks the disabled, which is a shame (for which disabled activists like Javed Abidi were understandably very irked with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment/the corresponding ministry in the preceding UPA, NDA and other regimes), and this angle needs to be emphasized across the board. In Delhi, some progress was made in this regard when it came to public buses in Sheila Dikshit’s tenure, but this needs to be extended to all states. Public-private partnership can and should be explored in this regard. The Indian Railways has already taken some positive steps in this direction, which is heartening, but the Act asked for more, like “engraving on the edges of railway platforms for the blind or for persons with low vision” and such engraving on zebra crossings on roads too. If citizens or voters are sensitized to this issue, the government would feel compelled to feel more proactive. The government of Telangana, which is of the TRS (in opposition to the BJP in the parliament), has taken a good initiative by creating disabled-friendly IT parks.
The income tax deduction for those taking care of the disabled has been increased; so, no one can complain against the central government on that score!
As for economic models of empowering the disabled, it is crucial indeed, and the disabled do not need to be pitied or patronized but seen as fellow humans with special needs on some occasions, but only that. As Walter F. Stromer, a very remarkable visually impaired personality, eloquently put it–
“You and I can help handicapped people by letting them define happiness for themselves. We can make life more miserable for them if we constantly remind them of how terrible we feel because of what they are missing. When we do that we are really saying to them, ‘Please get rid of your handicap because it makes me so uncomfortable’.”
“Is this so different from what happens to any of you? You are all missing out on some success or happiness. You are all disabled in some ways. Some of you are too short to be successful basketball players, and others of you are too scrawny to be professional football players. Do you cry yourselves to sleep every night because of what you are missing? I doubt it. And, you mothers who are lacking the face or the figure to appear on a movie screen, do you beat your fists on the kitchen counter all day and moan about the things you can’t do ? I’m sure you go on with the business of living and do the best you can. Allow handicapped persons to do the same.”
Disabled people who bravely play sports or achieve other milestones are an inspiration for all of us, and as Stromer informed his audience back in April 1982–
“(T)here are 120 organisations for the disabled. There are more than 130 wheelchair basketball teams. A totally deaf woman holds the world speed record for driving a vehicle on land. The President of Hofstra University is a man with cerebral palsy. Recently a young blind woman was involved in a down-hill skiing competition in Switzerland, while two other blind skiers and four sighted companions set out to ski across Lapland.”
In India, we had a female amputee Arunima Sinha, who lost her leg in an accident, successfully climb Mount Everest! Interestingly, India performed very well in the Special Olympics this year, coming third in the medal tally (and while this is about the disabled taking on other disabled, we shouldn’t overlook our national teams/contingents in these tournaments when it comes to sports), and Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, did well to felicitate them. Kejriwal also deserves to be lauded for launching an initiative of dropping and picking up differently abled children to and from school.
Many more legislative and executive measures need to be taken in this regard by central and state governments, and if they do not, we should not mind some judicial activism either for this cause!
(With inputs from my friends Akash Arora and Devaditya Chakravarti. Would also like to thank an officer in ALIMCO I spoke to while researching for this piece.)