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Explained: How much of India’s population lives with disabilities?

Definitions used over the years have differed, but the prevalence of disability has not changed significantly in official records. 

Written by Nushaiba Iqbal , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 3, 2020 11:10:40 pm
world disability day, disabled people in india, prevalence of disability indiaAbout 2.2% of India’s population lives with some kind of physical or mental disability, as per the National Statistics Office report on disability released last year.

December 3 is marked by the UN as International Day of Persons with Disabilities in a bid to promote a more inclusive and accessible world for the differently-abled and to raise awareness for their rights. In India, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment observed the day with essay and painting competitions among other events.

About 2.2% of India’s population lives with some kind of physical or mental disability, as per the National Statistics Office report on disability released last year.

What are the difficulties they face? Here is a profile of the prevalence of disability in India:

How are the disabled identified?

Until the 2011 census, there were questions on seven kinds of disabilities in the questionnaire. This list of disabilities was expanded to 21 when the Rights of People with Disabilities was introduced in 2016. Accordingly, the 2019 report included questions to identify people with temporary loss of an ability as well as neurological and blood disorders in addition to the earlier definition, that included mental retardation and permanent inability to move, speak, hear and see. Significantly, the revised definition recognises deformities and injuries of acid attack victims as disabilities, entitling them to various relief measures.

Who are disabled and in what way?

Rural men had the highest prevalence of disability in India, according to the NSO report. A higher proportion of men were disabled in India compared with women, and disability was more prevalent in rural areas than in urban areas.

Inability to move without assistance was the most common disability. More men experienced locomotor disability than women.

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These numbers were self-reported. In other words, the respondents were asked if they experienced any difficulty in performing tasks like moving, talking, etc.

Are these measures in line with those from other surveys?

The 2011 census estimated that the number of people with disabilities in India is close to 2.68 crore (or 2.2% of the population) — that is more than the entire population of Australia.

This number was based on the older definition of disability, yet the proportion of disabled people in the population is not different from the 2019 NSO report, which used the expanded definition of disability. However, the 2019 edition of disability statistics reported a slightly higher prevalence than those reported in earlier editions of the survey.

Other metrics for evaluating disability have provided different estimates. A 2019 study by the Public Health Foundation of India found that the use of the Annual Health Survey’s metrics results in a lower prevalence. Similarly, a group of doctors from AIIMS found that alternate questionnaires like the Rapid Assessment of Disability have resulted in a prevalence ranging from 1.6%-43.3%.

How can the range be so wide?

The proportion of population facing disability becomes bigger as one moves from a narrow definition to a broader one. For instance, if one defines disability as the difficulty in accessing public services for all kinds of reasons, even social or economic, then the proportion goes up.

Why is it important to get the number of disabled people right?

Like other disadvantaged groups, the disabled in India are entitled to some benefits, ranging from reservation in educational institutes to concessions on railway tickets. To claim these benefits, they have to furnish certificates as proof of disability. At the macro level, data on the prevalence and type of disability is useful while making allocations for welfare schemes.

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In the 2021 census, disability will be defined as per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (or RPwD) Act of 2016, clarified Shakuntala Doley Gamlin, Secretary, Department of Empowerment of Persons With Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice Empowerment.

“The department (of disability affairs) is also in the process of creating a national database of PwDs, which will contain information on those with certificates issued by competent medical authorities,” she added.

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