With an aim to empower differently-abled persons, the Kerala government is planning to set up a Centre for Disability Studies in the State capital. G. MAHADEVAN spoke to Dr. G.N. Karna, Chairman of the Working Group on Disability for the 11th Five Year Plan on the scope of this proposal.

Dr. G. N. Karna is a member of the National Human Rights Commission Core Group on disability and Chairman, Working Group on Disability for 11th Five Year Plan. He is a member of the Consultative Committee on Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Castes, and Social Welfare for Mid-Term Appraisal of 11th Five-Year Plan and is the Honorary President, Society for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies, New Delhi.

He was in Thiruvananthapuram last week to participate in a meeting called to discuss the setting up of a Centre for Disability Studies under the LBS, in Thiruvananthapuram. Based on discussions he had with The Hindu-EducationPlus while in Thiruvananthapuram he agreed to respond to questions emailed to him. Excerpts:

In layman’s terms, how would you define Disability Studies?

Disability Studies could be defined as a field of knowledge or academic inquiry, which reformulates the study of disability by perceiving it as a social phenomenon, social construct, metaphor and culture, and thereby suggesting adoption of rights-based perspective. Disability Studies is primarily centred on how disability is defined, viewed and represented in society.

The complexity of defining disability has aggravated because of indiscriminate and loose use, by scholars, of terms like ‘impaired’, ‘disabled’, ‘physically handicapped’/ ‘physically challenged’, ‘mentally challenged’ and ‘differently abled’. Though the fact remains that there is classical distinction in the meaning of these terminologies, they all convey some or other disabling situations and provide a fragmented perspective of disability. The most accepted terminology from rights-based perspective is persons with disabilities or disabled persons.

What is the status of disability studies in India? Is there adequate academic focus on the social, cultural, economic, educational issues relating to such people?

Ironically, despite plethora of studies and research carried out in developed societies, the area of disability studies, still, remains quite grey and unexplored. It continues to be ignored in the curricula of schools, colleges and universities in India and due attention has not been given to address issues related to disability and rehabilitation policies from inter-disciplinary paradigms. This could be reflected in the way the plethora of degrees and diploma courses are restructured over the years by national institutes with sectoral perspectives with medical/ clinical orientation.

This tendency has resulted in the issue of disability being studied and analysed as merely the part of the syllabi of certain specific disciplines such as, medical science, bio-technology, psychology, social work, special education, community health, rehabilitation medicine, labour economics and sociology and that, too, in a piecemeal fashion.

Moreover, there is far too rigid a compartmentalisation of disciplines in the curricula of Indian Universities and academic institutions, which has contributed to a reduction of cross-flow between various fields of research and obstructed progress in the specific field of disability. Since disability is basically a human rights and developmental issue, its multitudinous dimensions must be approached from interdisciplinary paradigm.

What should be the role of a Centre for Disability Studies such as the one proposed to be set up by the Government of Kerala?

The proposed Centre for Disability Studies (CDS) to be started by Government of Kerala should undertake the following activities in order to actualise the goal of empowering the persons with disabilities at the grassroots level. Among the major activities and roles identified for the proposed CDS are: imparting teaching and research at the level of MA/M.Sc., M.Phil. and Ph.D. programmes in Disability Studies with interdisciplinary perspectives; organising short-term and long-term training programmes for the rehabilitation personnel; developing resource materials for the use of persons with disabilities as also professionals and social activists for delivery of services to the stakeholders; conducting institutional and community rehabilitation programmes; establishing better linkages between university and government/non-governmental organisations working in disability sector; acting as a cleaning house on various disability aspects in terms of assistance, promotion of research and dissemination of information; conducting innovative research for promoting inclusive education practices at school and college level for students with disabilities; carrying out participatory action research on issues of contemporary relevance for disability sector ; espousing for incorporation of disability, rehabilitation and human rights related issues into the curricula of subjects being taught at school and college levels; and most importantly sensitizing at the grassroots level about the imperativeness of changing the mindsets of society.

Since the courses to be offered by the proposed centre should be multidisciplinary in nature, development of interdisciplinary team of experts/ professionals would be necessary.

Imparting courses on Disability Studies as part of higher education involves expertise from plethora of academic disciplines. The centre could initially offer MA/ M.Sc., M.Phil. and Ph.D. programme on Disability Studies. Apart from academic programmes, the staff of the Centre should also actively engage in research, training and development of psycho- educational tools.

How can the best of students be attracted to disability studies?

Insofar as attracting the best students for the programmes are concerned, a national level entrance test should be held in major cities of the country to select the competent candidates with interest in pursuing the career in Disability Studies.

Another important way to encourage talented and promising students/ scholars for opting academic, research and professional career in Disability Studies could be to institute certain scholarships/ fellowships. There could be adequate scope for degree holders of CDS for employment avenues in central and state universities, colleges, national institutes, organisations and donor agencies working in disability sector at national and international levels. Those who achieve excellence in research at doctoral level could also stand good chance of getting Ford Foundation and Commonwealth Fellowship for advanced career in Disability Studies in foreign universities/ academic institutions. For exceptional scholars with outstanding contribution to Disability Studies, there could also be scope for applying for the most prestigious Ed Roberts Post Doctoral Fellowship for higher research in the USA.

What are the steps that need to be taken to establish such an institute? How would it be funded?

The most important step required for Department of Education in Kerala is to constitute a high-power Core Group on Disability Studies Teaching and Research in Schools, Colleges and Universities with the mandate of laying down a broad outline for setting up a Centre for Disability Studies as part of LBS Centre for Science and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram. Total estimated financial support/grants- in- aid required to meet the expenses against plan headings for a duration of five years could be approximately Rs.10 crore or so. In addition, a Corpus Fund could be instituted so as to make the operation of centre sustainable in due course. In that case the centre might not have to look for financial support/grants at every stage of its institutional development. Insofar as mobilisation/allocation of financial resources is concerned, the Government of Kerala could allocate financial grants-in-aid/support of Rs.10 crore or as much as possible (including the plan expenses on salary and perks of staff for five-year period) for this purpose. The rest Rs.10 crore could be generated by managing part financial support from Thiruvananthapuram/Kerala-based major public sector banks and public sector undertakings.

What are the challenges faced by the disabled in the country today? What other measures can be taken to mitigate those challenges?

Given the gargantuan dimension and complex nature of the problem of disability in India, the greatest need of the hour is neither more programming nor even specific entitlements for the disabled individuals but a re-orientation of policy framework of disability from rights-based approach. Despite launching of plethora of schemes/plans and investing crores of rupees by Government of India on physical and vocational rehabilitation as also legal empowerment, the goal of mainstreaming the persons with disabilities into society is still as far way as ever. There is a wide gap in policy formulation and implementation. Though there is lack of accurate and reliable data on disability in our country it could roughly be assumed that not less than ten per cent of the total population are affected by physical, mental and sensory impairments and around 75 per cent of the total population is concentrated in rural, hilly and far-flung backward regions of developing countries.

If this yardstick is adopted to ascertain the quantum of population incapacitated by various disabling situations in our country, it could come around the staggering figure of ten and eleven crore.

Despite so much brouhaha in policy circles over empowerment of the disabled/disadvantaged, the situation is quite alarming at the grassroots level and a miniscule part of the disabled population has so far been benefited by governmental schemes/programmes. Even the scheme benefits do not go to them without pinches because of rampant corruption involved in delivery of services.

The monitoring and watchdog mechanism put in place has so far failed to ensure delivery of services and justice to the genuine disabled beneficiaries in villages.

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