Regulation guarantees individuals with disabilities equality of alternative and accessibility, however our practices deny them that
Posted by Shashi Tharoor |
Updated: December 3, 2020, 8:57:56 am
Today, December 3, is the annual International Day of People with Disabilities, established by the United Nations in 1992 to “promote and raise awareness of the rights and well-being of people with disabilities in all areas of society and development to strengthen the situation of people with disabilities in all aspects of political, social, economic and cultural life ”. It is also a stark reminder of how far we must go in India to meet the needs of the disabled.
Shreela Flather, a British MP of Indian origin, received a Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award in India a few years ago. Her husband in a wheelchair had come all the way from England to accompany her on this special occasion – but he couldn’t go on stage with her because there was no ramp. The organizers offered to lift him up on the stage, but he rightly refused. Even when I was burned with shame that we could not manage these basic services even on such a high-level occasion, I could well imagine what others in the same situation had to endure in India every day.
Around one billion people worldwide live with a disability, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries. In 2007 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This marked a milestone in treating disabled people as full members of society rather than objects of compassion or charity – or, as was shameful for much of our past, fear and ridicule.
India is a party to the Convention, and the World Bank estimates that well over 40 million Indians live with disabilities. Most Indians regard them with contempt or at best indifference to their plight.
There are legal regulations, but getting the authorities all over India to implement them is a whole different story. The Disability Rights Act was passed in 2016, but our country still has no ramps on its sidewalks or government buildings. The best that can be said is that the passage of the law may have helped shift the treatment of disabled people in society to right-wing thinking. But acting is a different matter.
The current government has sought to weaken the protection of this law and to decriminalize acts of discrimination against people with disabilities in the name of “improving the business mood”. This is wrong and deeply harmful: we cannot undermine the well-being of people with disabilities, thereby cementing the dangerously negative attitudes of many people in society in the name of commerce.
They are attitudes that have to change. I met Ashla Krishnan in her wheelchair in Thiruvananthapuram. She tells me not to consider her a quadriplegic, but rather a “person with quadriplegia”. Her paralysis, she says, doesn’t define it. Like any other person, she can and wants to make a contribution to society.
But as with Dr. Flather years ago, people with disabilities wanted one of us – to enable them to make a contribution with self-respect. They don’t want helpful strangers to lift them onto a stage, office, or restaurant. They want us to install the ramps that will allow them to enter these places themselves.
The law promises them equal opportunities and accessibility. Our practices deny them what the law promises.
There is some good news. The mainstream media is increasingly showing positive portrayals of people with disabilities, from Taare Zameen Par to Barfi. Athletes with disabilities have reached the peak of the sport and repeatedly made us proud. Most recently, they won four athletics medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. But that does not mean that we can overlook the appalling treatment that people with disabilities in India have long received and continue to receive.
Indians with disabilities are much more likely to suffer from poor social and economic development. Terrifyingly, 45 percent of this population is illiterate, which makes it difficult for them to build better and more fulfilling lives. Then there is the lack of political representation of the community: Despite the large number of people with disabilities in India, in our seven decades of independence we only had four parliamentarians and six members of the State Assembly who suffer from visible disabilities. This comes as no surprise when you consider that, unfortunately, several political leaders have even used discriminatory language and derogatory comments to speak about people with disabilities.
This lack of representation and general attitudes leads directly to policies that undermine the well-being of people with disabilities. Last year, for example, the government inexplicably decided to deviate from the convention and make people with cerebral palsy ineligible for the Indian Foreign Service. To claim that people with disabilities are unable to serve their country with loyalty, devotion and strength is an insult to them and to any Indian who wants their fellow citizens to be treated equally regardless of their physical condition.
But it’s not just about ramps for wheelchairs, text-to-speech facilities for the visually impaired or explanations in sign language for the deaf. Some of the weakest disabilities are those that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
In 2017, the Mental Health Act recognized and respected the representation of persons with mental illness, increased the presence of mental health facilities across the country, restricted the harmful use of electroshock therapy, and reduced the responsibilities of state mental health authorities such as the Police and effectively decriminalize attempted suicide.
Building on the extraordinary work of civil society activists such as Mithu Alur and Javed Abidi, India has made some progress in the right direction. The government has had some admirable initiatives to improve the number of Indians with disabilities, such as the ADIP program to improve access to disability benefits. The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan or Accessible India Campaign aims to make public transport, buildings and websites more accessible. But, as is too often the case with this government, a long shadow of poor implementation falls between rhetoric and reality. Unfortunately, since the program started in 2015, the Campaign for Accessible India is largely halfway through.
These attempts at reform would mean far more if every step forward did not come with half a step back, as was the case with the IFS ruling and the decriminalization of discrimination. It is important that the government work with civil society and people with disabilities to create an India where everyone feels welcome and treated with respect, regardless of their disability. Only then can we greet the next International Day of People with Disabilities without feeling ashamed.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 3, 2020 under the title “An activation error”. The author is a congressman from Thiruvananthapuram
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