“Diverse terms are used to refer to people like us. We are called differently abled, visually challenged, physically challenged and so on. But I feel that we should be rightly called politically challenged because it is the lack of political will and mass support that is making our voices go unheard or ignored,” laments V. Ilangovan, chairman of Blind Teachers Association, Madurai branch.
Narrating the travails of the people like him, he says it is nearly 18 years since the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act - 1995 was enacted.
Yet, provision of equal opportunities to them in education as well as employment remains a distant dream with even the mandatory three per cent reservation not being followed in letter and spirit.
He recalls that in May 2012, the Madras High Court itself had observed:
“If some vacancies meant for the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes or Most Backward Classes are left unfilled, many organisations, associations and even political parties would raise their voice, protest and agitate. But it is not so in the case of the differently abled. Maybe, because they do not command such a position in politics.”
Justice S. Manikumar had made the observation in an interim order after finding that most of the government institutions were not reserving jobs for the physically challenged as per the provisions of the 1995 Act though a whopping number of 98,295 such people were waiting for government jobs in the State after registering their names in the employment exchanges.
Mr. Ilangovan says: “The Persons with Disabilities Act makes it mandatory for every State Government to identify posts that could be reserved for the physically challenged, and review such identification once in three years. But the irony remains that no effort to identify the posts was made in Tamil Nadu for over a decade since the Act came into force.”
“It was only a few years ago, a high-level committee was constituted to identify jobs meant for the visually challenged. But the fate of the committee is not known to us. We do not even know whether it has submitted its report to the government or not. We are always kept in the dark.”
Stating that he is among the few visually challenged people who are lucky to have got jobs as teachers in government schools, Mr.Ilangovan says they face discrimination even at the workplace.
He points out that the government conducts computer training classes for regular teachers but no such classes are conducted for visually challenged teachers.
“Many representations have been made to the officials concerned in this regard. But the stock reply is that government is yet to allocate funds for it. Similarly, we want the retirement age for visually challenged teachers to be raised from 58 to 60 as it had been done in Haryana. There is no proper reply for this plea too but for saying that it requires a change in the government’s policy decision,” he points out.
Even when it comes to education, the visually challenged complain that they end up getting a raw deal.
“The government reimburses yearly fee of around Rs.41,000 to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students pursuing Bachelor of Education courses in private colleges.
But people like me are not given the benefit,” laments 22-year-old S. Venkalamoorthy, a visually challenged student doing B.Ed. here.
His eldest brother S. Kannadasan is mentally challenged and the other brother S. Vijayakumar cannot hear or speak.
His father K. Santhanam is a casual labourer and mother S. Pasuvathy works in a brick kiln.
His mother is actually his father’s niece and the marriage between close relatives is cited as the reason for the medical disorders suffered by all the three children.
Recalling a similar travail, 29-yar-old M. Chelladurai of Ezhumalai here says that he completed his undergraduation in Tamil from Melur Government Arts College in 2004.
But, he could not join B.Ed. course for the last eight years for want of money.
He joined the course only on August 4 this year after a philanthropist agreed to make a part payment of Rs. 15,000 towards the course fee.
“I belong to the Most Backward Class and, therefore, not eligible for government reimbursement available only to SC/ST students. My parents, both farm labourers, cannot afford to educate me. My only sister also does not have vision in one of her eyes. It would be nice if the government comes forward to reimburse the fee for people like me too,” he pleads.
L. Ravi, secretary of Madurai District Deaf Development Association, says (through sign language interpreted by his son) that the monthly monetary assistance of Rs.1,000 given by the State Government to the physically challenged must be raised to Rs.2,000 and reviewed periodically in tune with ever-increasing cost of living.
He also wants reservation for the physically challenged in distribution of government freebies.
“There is a great difference between how the physically challenged are treated in our country and in western countries. Leave alone special care, even provision of basic facilities such as ramps, wheelchairs and friendly toilets have not been provided in a majority of the government establishments despite the issue being raised time and again for the last 66 years since Independence,” he points out.
“I don’t know how many more years will it take for the policy makers to hear our voices. We have been crying for assistance for long but those in power are not hearing us,” he says with a sense of disappointment looming large over his face.