File picture of a child at a rally in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protect the rights of the disabled. (Prem Singh)
Street protests, nationwide consultations and meetings with policy-makers — advocacy for the rights of the disabled has never been this vocal.
Almost two decades after the now-redundant 1995 Persons With Disability (PWD) Act was drafted, its refurbished version with 108 amendments guaranteeing civil and political rights to the disabled crawled its way into Parliament last year.
Although relegated to a standing committee, the bill, which has expanded the definition of disability to include nine more disabilities, is an example of the struggle by the community to gain prominence in policy discourses.
Finally, say activists, disability rights are being taken seriously.
“The question to ask this Independence Day is, do the 70 million disabled people in the country have ‘real’ freedom? We are not as ‘free’ as the others. For half a century, India didn't pay any attention to this community,” says Javed Abidi, the convener of the Disability Rights Group, the largest advocacy group for the disabled.
“In 1995 they gave us the PWD Act and since then we have been recovering from the 50 years of neglect. It’s now that we have really demanded, protested and really fought for our rights and been noticed,” he added.
The advocacy over the past year has brought in multiple gains for the community.
For the first time, the Republic Day parade telecast on national TV featured simultaneous sign-language interpretation for hearing-impaired people.
Three Doordarshan channels — DD News, DD Bharti and DD Urdu — provided sign-language interpretation of the Republic Day commentary. News channels were given directives to carry the signals of DD with the interpretations.
Just months later, for the first time, a Prime Minister’s swearing-in was made available in sign language. As many as three Indian sign-language interpreters were on duty on the occasion to ensure that the oath-taking and related ceremonies are made available to the 18 million hearing-impaired citizens of India.
During the budget session, the government approved two one-of-a-kind institutes for the disabled — the Centre for Disability Sports, a state-of-the-art sporting facility that would cater exclusively for para-athletes, and the National Institute of Inclusive and Universal Design, the first such institute to design barrier-free tools for the community.
“These proposals have been pushed by us over the years and it is now that the government is taking steps to build these institutes. Along with the PWD law, these are going to revolutionise the lives of people with disabilities,” says Abidi.
Among the other promises from this government are:
• Printing of special currency notes with Braille-like signs for the visually challenged
• Four new AIIMS for the grossly neglected healthcare sector
• Establishing 15 new Braille presses and revival of 10 existing ones
• Extension of the scheme to assist the disabled to purchase aids and appliances
Many like rights activist Amba Salelkar believe that the “real tangible” momentum for the disability movement came not from activists but from people with disabilities who contributed their time to the cause.
“Our success has been that in the last year we have been able to draw out the common man from the community to participate in and contribute to the movement. They might not be activists, but they have taken part in consultations, written emails and encouraged others like them over the Internet. The movement really gained by the participation of these people,” says Salelkar.
“I would like this government to enable me to go anywhere I choose to go without thinking about inaccessible buildings and barriers for my wheelchair,” says Paralympic Deepa Malik, who is on the committee that is drawing the blueprint for the sport centre for the disabled.
Disability rights activists, however, want much more and in concrete terms. Their demands include:
• Higher interest rates, similar to the benefit for senior citizens on fixed deposits, and long-term investment instruments
• Free education for people with disability up to SSC in all schools
• Spinal injury rehabilitation units at all public hospitals
• Rehabilitation insurance to cover all expenses (medical, assistive technologies, therapy, etc.) of daily life
• Access tax of 2 per cent on corporations for 10 years to make the public infrastructure in the country barrier-free and accessible to people with disabilities
• Railway budget should include allocations to make platforms, stations and compartments disabled-friendly
• 100 per cent FDI in manufacturing of products and assistive technologies for the disabled.