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Feature

Born into bondage in ‘Free India’

As we commemorate India’s 60th year of Independence, Javed Abidi, Executive Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.), and Convenor of Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) that effectively lobbied for the passage of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, through his critical commentary, portrays the abysmal picture as far as India’s 70 million disabled citizens are concerned.

This is an interesting year. In February, we commemorated the passing away of a decade since the enactment of The Disability Act. Now, in August – on 15th to be precise – we enter the 60th year of India’s Independence.

59 or 60 years is a long enough period in a Nation’s life. It is a good time to introspect. I do so as a Disabled Indian.

No one knows the exact history of the disability sector in India. Some N.G.O.s were surely there even in the British era. And we can also safely say that the so called charity approach was not entirely our invention but something that we inherited from British India. However, when and how which disability organisation got established is not chronicled and in that sense, not easily available. Nor is it terribly important to know if the National Association of the Blind got established first or the All India Federation of the Deaf or the first Spastics Society.

The contours are known to us and they are important. Most organisations that got set up in the 1950s and the 1960s wanted to do service delivery in the welfare mode and were managed, often run, by non-disabled people. Some of these non-disabled people were parents, some were siblings or relatives and quite a lot were merely do-gooders.

Vast tracts of land were either given free by the then Governments or were bought at nominal prices, thanks to the charity and welfare approach that was then prevalent and to which these N.G.O. leaders also subscribed. Grants and donations were aplenty. It did not take very long for big buildings to get built and thus the first few ‘institutions’ for the disabled were born.

From there began an era where people with disabilities were merely recipients of charity and therefore, pity. The N.G.O. leaders revelled in the adulation that society bestowed upon them for ‘taking care of’ and ‘looking after’ these poor ‘handicapped’ souls. The N.G.O. leaders saw nothing wrong in all of this. They went after more grants, more aid and therefore, more service delivery, more charity, more welfare and more pity.

And all of this continued right until the 1990s. Almost half a century having gone by, literally without even a whisper. As far as disabled Indians are concerned, 50 years wasted or simply wiped away.

For basic survival, one needs food, clothing and shelter and none of these three come free! And to be economically self-sufficient, one needs a job or some form of work. For that, one needs basic education and access (as in a barrier-free environment). If not both education and access, then at least one.

Argumentatively, if one is educated, one can earn some form of living even from home (in the absence of access). Similarly, if one is illiterate but if the environment is barrier-free, one can venture out and do something to earn enough to survive.

But what would one do in the absence of both, education and access??? The answer is not a difficult one to guess.

As India progressed, we set up a vast educational network – thousands of schools and colleges; hundreds of universities, medical colleges, engineering colleges, polytechnics, I.I.T.s, I.I.M.s, and most recently, the I.T. training institutes; the N.I.I.T.s and the Aptechs. And amazingly, it did not occur to anyone that a wheelchair user like me may also want to gain this education! The net result is that even as we commemorate India’s 60th year of Independence, Pooja Saxena a bright disabled wheelchair user girl has been turned away by the Symbiosis Institute in Pune because their hostel is inaccessible. Earlier, Delhi University had crushed the spirit of another wheelchair user girl, Sanghamitra and N.I.I.T. had ruined the carrier of another wheelchair boy, Aqeel.

The situation for the blind is not all too different. Even in the olden era, the Braille books were never available. Now that India is technologically savvy, the blind still have no access to digital books or even talking books. How many of our educational institutions have scanners that can read text to the blind? How many of our N.I.I.T.s have the necessary wherewithal to educate a blind girl or a low-vision boy? How many of our computers are Jaws enabled (which makes it possible for a blind person to use them)?

Education for the deaf is almost like a dream. Not due to any fault of theirs and surely not, because they don’t want to study! But because our so-called educational system is totally ill equipped to meet their basic needs. Forget sign language interpreters, we do not even have a properly developed sign language.

In this dismal a scenario, to even raise the issue of educating our children with either a mental or a neurological disability would be like cracking the proverbial bad joke.

Let me present you with some crushing statistics. A recent N.C.P.E.D.P. Research revealed that out of the 7,13,167 reported number of University students, merely 1500 or so were disabled. Out of them, while 1,163 were orthopaedically disabled and 307 were visually impaired, only and I repeat only 38 were deaf.

If one was to question the authenticity of the NCPEDP statistics, then let me share with you the most recent CBSE 10th Board results. Out of the 6,32,014 total number of students, only 909 were disabled. And out of those, 514 were orthopaedically disabled, 169 were blind and 109 were deaf.

In a 21st Century Nation that supposedly passionately espouses ‘Sarva Siksha’, i.e. Education for All, the fact that no not 50 per cent or even 75 per cent; not even 90 per cent but rather, tragically 99.8 per cent of our disabled children and youth are without any education evokes no reaction! Let me attempt to present this differently. If only a mere 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of the Indian disabled are educated, why is it not a cause of concern? And when naked discrimination against Pooja Saxena takes place, why no action is taken against Padma Shri S.B. Majumdar and why in spite of violating every law under The Disability Act, Symbiosis still continues to receive the patronage of U.G.C. in the form of Deemed University status.

Let’s turn our attention to the issue of access. To even think of a barrier-free environment in a country such as India is almost nightmarish. But can we afford to give up? Obviously not. As India evolved, buildings got built and infrastructure got developed. And the powers that be forgot all about the disabled! Today we have massive buildings all over India but our architects and builders are alien to the concept of a ramp for the wheelchair users or guiding blocks for the visually impaired.

Our trains are such where a wheelchair user like me can’t even enter the inside of a compartment. I have often joked that in a way, Gandhiji was lucky to have at least entered inside the compartment (of the train in South Africa) and was only later, thrown out. Orthopaedically disabled Indians in free and supposedly modern India can’t even undertake a railway journey! Our situation in 21st Century India is more like the pre-Independence colonial era, where the White Man could boldly say ‘Dogs and Indians not allowed inside’. The signboard may be missing but wheelchair users, even in Metropolitan India, can’t get into an average shop or park or cinema hall.

Again, the blind are no better off in the absence of braille signages, tactile surfaces, guiding blocks, voice enabled systems and so on – terms and concepts neither practised nor understood by the Great Indian Planner and Developer.

Therefore, if I go back now to my earlier point of how terribly important both education and access are to the life of any human being and more so to the life of a person with disability, it should not be too difficult to gauge as to how terribly our 60-70 million disabled men and women, boys and girls must be doing in Free and Modern India.

(To be continued)