Today, December 3, is the annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities, established by the United Nations in 1992 to “promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life”. It is also a stark reminder of how far we in India need to go in meeting 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 wheelchair-ridden husband had come all the way from England to accompany her on this special occasion — but he was unable to go up on the stage with her, because there was no ramp. The organisers offered to lift him up to the stage but he rightly refused. Even as I burned with shame that we could not manage this basic provision even at such a high-level occasion, I could well imagine what others in the same situation had to endure every day in India.
About a billion people internationally live with a disability, with 80 per cent of these being residents of the developing world. In 2007, the UN passed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This was a landmark step toward treating disabled persons as full members of society, rather than objects of pity or charity — or, as was shamefully the norm for much of our past, fear and ridicule.
India is a state party to the convention, and the World Bank estimates that there may be well over 40 million Indians living with disabilities. Most Indians regard them with disdain or at best indifference to their plight.
Provisions exist in law, but getting the authorities anywhere in India to implement them is another story altogether. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in 2016 but our country is still largely devoid of ramps on its footpaths or government buildings. The best that can be said is that the passage of the law may have helped shift the treatment of disabled persons in society towards rights-focused thinking. But acting is a different matter.
The present government has sought to weaken this law’s protections, decriminalising acts of discrimination against persons with disabilities in the name of “improving business sentiment”. This is misguided and deeply harmful: We cannot erode the well-being of people with disabilities, thus entrenching the dangerously negative attitudes of many in society, in the name of commerce.
It’s attitudes that need to change. I’ve met Ashla Krishnan in her wheelchair in Thiruvananthapuram. She tells me I shouldn’t think of her as a quadriplegic, but as a “person with quadriplegia”. Her paralysis, she says, does not define her. She can and does want to contribute to society, like any other person.
But as with Dr Flather years ago, people with disabilities want one thing from us — to make it possible for them to contribute with self-respect. They don’t want helpful strangers to lift them onto a stage, or into an office or a restaurant. They want us to install the ramps that will permit them to accede to these places themselves.
The law promises them equality of opportunity and accessibility. Our practices deny them what the law promises.
There is some good news. Mainstream media has increasingly started showing positive representations of people with disabilities, from Taare Zameen Par to Barfi. Athletes with disabilities have reached the pinnacles of sport and done us proud repeatedly, most recently winning four athletics medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. But that doesn’t mean we can overlook the appalling treatment that people with disabilities have long received, and continue to receive, in India.
Indians with disabilities are far more likely to suffer from poor social and economic development. Shockingly, 45 per cent of this population is illiterate, making it difficult for them to build better, more fulfilled lives. This is compounded by the community’s lack of political representation: Despite the vast population of people with disabilities in India, in our seven decades of independence we have had just four parliamentarians and six state assembly members who suffer from visible disabilities. This is hardly a surprise when considering that, unfortunately, several political leaders have even used discriminatory language and derogatory comments to talk about people with disabilities.
This lack of representation, and these general attitudes, translate directly into policy that undermines the well-being of people with disabilities. Last year, for example, the government inexplicably decided to depart from convention and render people suffering from cerebral palsy ineligible for the Indian Foreign Service. Suggesting that persons with disabilities are unable to serve their country with loyalty, devotion, and strength is an insult to them, and to any Indian who wishes to see their fellow citizens treated equally, regardless of physical condition.
But it’s not only about ramps for wheelchairs, text-to-speech facilities for the visually challenged or sign language explanations for the deaf. Some of the most debilitating disabilities are those that are not apparent to the naked eye.
In 2017, the Mental Healthcare Act recognised and respected the agency of persons with mental-health conditions, expanding the presence of mental-health establishments across the country, restricted the harmful use of electroshock therapy, clarified the mental-health responsibilities of state agencies such as the police, and effectively decriminalised attempted suicide.
Building on the extraordinary work of civil society activists like Mithu Alur and Javed Abidi, India has made some progress in the right direction. The government has had some admirable initiatives to improve the lot of Indians with disabilities, such as the ADIP scheme for improving access to disability aids. The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan, or Accessible India Campaign, has aimed to make public transport, buildings and websites more accessible. But as is too often the case with this government, between rhetoric and reality there falls the long shadow of poor implementation. Unfortunately, the Accessible India Campaign has largely remained half-done since the scheme’s inception in 2015.
These attempts at reform would mean far more were each step forward not accompanied by half a step back, as with the IFS ruling and the decriminalisation of discrimination. It is critical that the government work with civil society and individuals with disabilities to craft an India where everyone feels welcome and treated with respect, regardless of their disabilities. Only then can we welcome the next International Day of Persons with Disabilities without a sense of shame.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 3, 2020 under the title ‘A failure to enable’. The writer is a Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram