In India, differently abled people usually end up being doubly marginalized. Apart from having to grapple with tremendous physical and mental disadvantages on a daily basis, they are forced to reckon with society’s indifference towards them. How many Indians, for instance, are aware that December 3 is World Disability Day? Or even bothered by the fact that more than 3,000 differently abled people gathered this year on that day at the India Gate to protest against the government’s apathy towards them? Although they constitute 7-8 per cent of the population, differently abled people continue to be largely ignored by the Welfare State of the democratic republic of India. It is odd, for instance, that in spite of having a ministry for women and child development, successive governments have been tardy, even reluctant, about setting up a ministry dedicated to the cause of differently abled people. At present, a small division in the ministry of social justice and empowerment is devoted to this section of the citizenry. So it is hardly surprising that the aspirations of people with special needs are being ill-served, if not squarely neglected, by such a marginal body within a ministry that is supposed to redress many other general grievances.
For years, activists, and especially the members of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, have been lobbying for the establishment of a proper ministry dedicated to the well-being of differently abled people. However, their demand has remained unrealized so far — and this may be partly explained by the paucity of differently abled people in crucial decision-making panels. Even the committee considering critical changes to the new draft of the disability law is embarrassingly skewed in its composition — of the 34-odd members, only 3-4 are differently abled. As a result, key questions pertaining to the lives of differently abled people have remained unexplored.
It is reassuring, therefore, to note the NCPEDP’s renewed emphasis on having sign language recognized as one of the official languages of the country. The demand is not only long overdue but also logically unimpeachable. Millions in this country are existentially dependent on this special mode of communication. So, to let sign language remain confined among the specialists is to give credence to discrimination in a subtle way. With more people becoming familiar with sign language, those with hearing impairment are likely to find themselves in a more understanding and inclusive world than the one they inhabit today. But the vision of a more just and equal society must factor in other micro elements as well. Public space, for instance, must be reconceptualized — with more lifts, disability access and escalators added — to make it safer for and kinder towards differently abled people. And this vision of a more equitable world must be shared equally by the State and its citizens.