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World Disability Day: Community will remain on margins of society until rights are ensured, discrimination isn't stopped

As someone who has worked in the area of mainstreaming disability in policies and programmes for a decade now, people often approach me asking for information, advice, and mostly just to be heard. A young blind student at a leading college in Delhi recently shared how a corporate known for its "diversity and inclusion" work told her that they only hire deaf persons and persons with intellectual disabilities. A journalist asked me how to deal with her neighbourhood bank that is refusing to open an account for her brother who has cerebral palsy. At a training of human resource personnel, a participant asks a person with a disability why he does not take it on himself to sensitise his co-workers. If upon reading this, your thoughts are either that of pity and sympathy; or genuine inability to see anything misplaced here, then it is because we have normalised such daily discrimination that people with disabilities face in the country.

In the case of the young student who is blind, the employer blatantly tells her that her qualifications are irrelevant to getting a job with them. In the second case, based on the person’s impairment, the bank has assumed that he is not fit enough to handle his own finances. In the third case, the HR personnel puts the onus of creating a workplace sensitised to his identity on the employee and not on the management.

 World Disability Day: Community will remain on margins of society until rights are ensured, discrimination isnt stopped

Representational image. Reuters

People with disabilities are considered to be the largest minority in the world, albeit an invisible one. It is estimated that one billion people or 15 percent of the world live with a disability. In India, even by conservative estimates, this figure should be around 100 million, though the official figures say only 26.8 million (Census 2011). However, we hardly see them in our public spaces. According to a UN study, it is estimated that of the estimated 2.9 million children with disabilities in India, 990,000 (or 34 percent) are out of school. When it comes to higher education, Census 2011 shows that only 1.2 million people with disabilities have a graduate degree or above. Of the 13.4 million people with disabilities in the employable age of 15-59 years, 9.9 million (73.4 percent) are either non-workers or are marginal workers (Census 2011). These figures reflect the extreme marginalisation that people with disabilities have faced and continue to face, which are often exacerbated by the intersectionality of gender, caste and socio-economic conditions.

While, over the past decade and more, significant progress has been achieved towards addressing these abysmal realities, the truth remains that people with disabilities are caught in a vicious cycle. One’s empowerment is tied to financial independence which comes with meaningful employment. This, in turn, is linked to employable skill sets acquired through education and training. Neither employment nor education is possible without an environment that allows a person with a disability to venture out into society independently and safely. Sadly, even after the government’s flagship initiative to make infrastructure accessible – the Accessible India Campaign, only 3 percent of our public buildings are disabled-friendly.

When the Parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 two years back, there was hope that this would be the game-changer. Among other things, it expanded the definition of disability to include 21 conditions – up from the previous seven. There is greater accountability on the private sector. The law mandates that all existing public buildings be made accessible within five years, and requires service providers, whether government or private, to provide accessible services within a period of two years from the notification of the law. It states that no establishment shall be granted permission to build any structure if the building plan does not adhere to accessibility standards, and certificate of completion would not be issued to such constructions. Besides the built environment and transport, the new law requires all content available in audio, print and electronic media to be in an accessible format; electronic goods and equipment that are meant for everyday use to be made available in universal design; and ensuring access to television programmes with sign language interpretation or sub-titles.

In education, the new law requires all educational institutions funded or recognised by the government to admit children with disabilities without discrimination, and to make their facilities accessible, including providing reasonable accommodation, assistive devices, and making curriculum adaptation, among others. In relation to employment, the new law provides 4 percent quota from the total vacancies identified for persons with disabilities in government jobs.

These are paradigm shifting mandates. However, two years since the law was enacted and over a year and a half since it came into force, implementation has been painfully slow. In order to be able to achieve any of the commitments enshrined in the new law, there has to be adequate resource allocation. Analyses done by EQUALS show a stark disconnect. The total allocation for disability in 2017 was a mere 0.0039 percent of the Union Budget. In 2018, the allocation for the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities increased by 12 percent from the previous year (Rs 1,070 crore). This is not only not enough but woefully inadequate to fulfil any of the commitments made under the new law.

One of the reasons why despite all good intentions, we as a nation have not been able to move forward towards including people with disabilities in the mainstream, allowing them equitable access to the same opportunities that are available to every other citizen, is because we have not been able to understand and accept the idea of disability as a part of human diversity. Being a person with a disability is as normal or abnormal as being of a certain gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. If the society is not focussing on curing disability and correcting people with disabilities to be "normal", it views them as objects of charity who need to be congratulated for just being able to get out to public spaces. Which is why the focus is on providing cochlear implants to make deaf children experience the miracle of sound, while even now the television programming in the country do not have closed captioning or sign language for the estimated 18 million deaf people in the country. So often people in power are seen doling out poor quality wheelchairs that are great photo opportunities but hardly there is an investment in creating accessible infrastructure.

While it is important to recognise organisations for employing people with certain disabilities as a first step towards inclusion, it is equally important to ask them if over the years, the status quo has changed to include all disabilities. Inspirational stories about people overcoming disabilities are in abundance, but the society never asks why there were barriers to be overcome in the first place.

By continuing to endorse these unconscious biases, we are conditioning society into believing that people with disabilities should be happy if they are getting a marginally less abysmal deal, to be thankful for being able to access opportunities which really constitute their human right.  Until we stop normalising such deep systemic every day discrimination, people with disabilities will continue to be on the margins of our society, being denied the opportunity to live dignified lives and contribute towards nation building.

The author has been working extensively in the field of disability rights advocacy both nationally and internationally. She tweets @DorodiSharma.

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Updated Date: Dec 03, 2018 07:05:52 IST

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