Arman Ali knows he has some big shoes to fill, nonetheless, he is excited about the challenges of his new role. After Javed Abidi — the man synonymous with the disability rights movement in India — passed away recently, the mantle of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), which Abidi helmed, has passed on to Arman.
NCPEDP is a cross-disability advocacy organisation that has several achievements to its credit, the latest being its role in the passage of a new disability act in April 2017 that replaced the archaic 1995 Act.
Born and educated in Guwahati, Arman, 38, who presently heads Shishu Sarothi, the Centre for Rehabilitation & Training for Multiple Disability, says there is still abysmal awareness about the disabled in our society and that the government for its part has done precious little to make their issues its priority.
Arman was famously abused and called a Pakistani for not standing up during the national anthem in a Guwahati theatre last year. He tells us how problematic that was at so many levels and also speaks at length about the disability rights movement in India.
How are you feeling about the new charge?
It is a huge responsibility, there are huge expectations. I look at it as a very big opportunity with many challenges. People will compare (with Abidi). I am not nervous but excited. A lot has been done (but) there is so much more that needs to be done. It is a very, very long haul.
How does our society look at people with disabilities?
When a child is born disabled, or becomes disabled, parents and family look at her as, first, karma, and then (social) stigma. We hide such a child, we don’t take her out. Schools, cinema, public places are not for the disabled — not only because these places are inaccessible but also because we don’t want them in public view. Tell me how many times have you seen a disabled person in a cinema or public buses? They have been made invisible. Just because we don’t see them, we don’t think about them or their existence. And when, by any chance, we see them we don’t know how to deal with them. There is awkwardness. In fact, most people are clueless about the word accessibility.
What are the key hurdles in the disability movement in India?
Firstly, there is an acute lack of awareness in understanding disability in our country. In my so many years of working in the disability sector in the northeast, I found people having no inkling that there was a legal provision in place — The Peoples with Disability Act, 1995 — for over two decades. That archaic act too has been replaced. People do not understand cross-disability either.
Then, there is the lack of political will to recognise that disability is not welfare or charity but an integral part of development. The policymakers almost always have a charity and welfare model and not a development model for the disabled.
Both the government and people are happy to give you clothes, doles, substandard aids and appliances (like wheelchairs, hearing aids, etc.) but talk to them about education there is a disconnect, talk about employment there is a complete no-no. India has 70 million citizens with disabilities but the union budgets make miserly allocations for them.
Things are worse in rural areas as far as public awareness and government intervention are concerned.
How far have we progressed in terms of accessibility for the disabled?
Whether it is access to education i.e. schools, special or mainstream, or workplaces, access is the key and that still remains extremely elusive in our country. There is not one building that has been built or is being built, like school, panchayat or lifts, keeping the disabled in mind. Development in India is not disability-inclusive. Moreover, accessibility is not just building disabled-friendly infrastructure but also making available requisite technology to the disabled.
Why is this so?
Because there is no accountability. Make people accountable. Make it impossible for them to ignore disability. Enact an anti-discrimination law with punitive measures to ensure equal participation of people with disabilities.
How can education become inclusive?
Say, a blind person will know Braille only if she goes to a blind school. Shouldn’t Braille be part of our mainstream school system? At the same time, why restrict a blind child to just Braille? Braille is actually a thing of the past. There are information and communication technologies (ICT), why should we not utilise those. In fact, ICT can play a big role in making education inclusive. The Right to Education Act says every child is unique, has her own individuality and should be provided learning opportunities likewise. Why should that change for a disabled child?
Remember, our fight is still for survival, forget equal opportunities, that is distant. Pehle school mein admission nahi milta, agar milta hai to uske baad aane jaane ki ladai. I reiterate such problems are more acute in rural areas.
How important is terminology for the disabled — like differently abled, divyaang, specially abled? :
There is a lot of focus on terminology, which is simply for the sake of political correctness. We are all humans first. People call a disabled child special though there is nothing special that she will be offered: she will be deprived of education and her rights while growing up. Terminology diverts attention from the real issues concerning the persons with disabilities. Even if you use the term differently abled, it does not mean you get equal opportunities to prove your ability.
If somebody is blind but can work on a computer, he is not provided with a software or any technology so that he can work like everybody else. Calling differently abled, specially abled or special is somewhat derogatory. Mahatma Gandhi called Dalits Harijans but how did it help them?
What is your take on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) imposed on items of use by the disabled.
There should be a complete tax waiver. One, you are not making standard products for the disabled. Secondly, instead of incentivising those who are making them, you are imposing GST. It’s conflicting and insensitive. The focus should be on quality control and innovation.
How do you plan to take the Right of Persons with Disabled 2016 to people?
There will be a countrywide campaign to create awareness about the new law. It is very empowering, All stakeholders have a role to play in it, from school, college, university, workplace, district administration to the state This law will remain a piece of paper unless people know about it, people use it. It is in the nature of things that rights must be fought for. Unless people don’t assert, they won’t get what they should.
Relate the national anthem episode
It was a shocker. The national anthem evokes deep emotions in you when you listen to it. However, you think that people will understand that there must be a problem when someone does not stand up while the National Anthem is being played, But somebody abused me, called me a Pakistani. It could have led to a confrontation, violence, anything. The episode shows that there is so much awareness that needs to be created about disability. There is a need to recognise people with disabilities as one of the diversities in the world instead of trying to fix them.