The Sunday Story Abidi, who is also honorary director, National Centre for the Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, responded from the United States to emailed questions.
If there is one thing that governments should be doing to empower the disabled, it is improving access. Without basic access, individuals with disability cannot even move out of their homes, says Javed Abidi, founder of the Disability Rights Group in this interview to Garimella Subramaniam. Mr. Abidi, who is also honorary director, National Centre for the Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, responded from the United States to emailed questions.
1. What does India’s participation in the Paralympics 2012 tell us about the situation of disabled people in India?
India neglected its disabled citizens for nearly half a century, 48 years to be exact. From 1947 when we gained independence to 1995 when we hurriedly enacted a 'law' to supposedly protect the 'rights' of people with disabilities. Since then, it has now been almost 17 years but we continue to remain marginalised and neglected.
Regarding disability sports, the infamous Commonwealth Games should have served as a wake up call. The mismanagement and loot was not limited to only regular sports. In the case of disability sports, it was worse.
We held numerous rallies and dharnas, exposed the Paralympics Committee of India (PCI), got them even derecognised, but then what happened?
With the help of politicians, undue political pressure was exerted on the Sports Ministry and PCI’s recognition was restored. The apathy and neglect can be gauged by the fact that disability sports in India is headed by a non-disabled Karnataka politician, Rathan Singh, who otherwise doesn't know the a, b, c, or d of the subject.
2. How do you assess the implementation of the current umbrella disability law and what are its shortcomings?
The law is there, only on paper. Implementation has been extremely tardy. Let us look at any aspect and against each, let me ask a few most basic questions. In the area of education, how many of our schools, colleges or universities have been made accessible? Practically none. On the contrary, with the privatisation of education, the nation has built hundreds of more educational institutions where a disabled student would find it nearly impossible to gain education. In the area of employment, the 3 per cent quota in Government jobs remains unfulfilled. The law gave us some hope for jobs in the private sector, but when peanuts were offered as ‘incentives’, they too turned their face away. Regarding accessibility, the less said the better.
3. What is the status of the proposed law that the Centre must enact to realise the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?
The Committee constituted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) had submitted its report on June 30, 2011. After more than one year, MSJE has finally broken its silence and has come out with a Draft Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2012. This draft was quietly unveiled on the Ministry’s website a few days ago. It is a welcome move. At least now, the nation can see what the Government’s position is on various issues, including the contentious ones. DRG is studying the draft and we will come out with our position very soon.
According to sources, MSJE desires to table the Bill in the Parliament in the Winter session. It is ambitious but if sufficient political will is generated, this deadline can be met.
4. What is the DRG’s rationale for one single law encompassing all disabilities?
Our vision was and is ‘One law containing all the rights of all the disabled people’. In other words, a comprehensive law. And, who can argue against that?
The handful of people who have been opposing that idea or that vision are either power hungry or ultra myopic or simply selfish and jealous. They have a vested interest in having a separate authority and therefore a separate system for supposedly their constituency, namely either people with psychosocial disabilities or people with intellectual disabilities or autism or multiple disabilities.
The very thought process is so negative. It attacks the core of any movement that genuinely believes in cross-disability.
If we have four laws in our country as of today that concern disabled people one way or the other, it is because of historic wrongs and mistakes. I would appeal to all concerned to not repeat those mistakes one more time.
5. What are the changes we might see following the recent establishment of a separate department for disabilities?
This is the biggest change that the disability movement could have ever hoped for. Earlier, the issue of disability was a mere dot on the very large and complex radar screen of the Centre. After the 1995 disability law, it became a bit of a blip. Now, we would have a space of our own on India’s radar.
Consider just this. Earlier, there was a small bureau with one Joint Secretary level officer and a staff of about 40. Now, we will have a separate Secretary, 3 Joint Secretaries, and staff strength of as many as 150. Naturally, our resource allocation, our budget will also escalate.
6. Given the cross-disability focus of your work, what is the one big issue that needs the highest priority?
I am 200 per cent convinced that it is access, access and access.
If we don’t have basic access, disabled people cannot even step out of their homes. And access not just to the physical environment but also to information technology, aids and appliances, and services.
Without access, education is nearly impossible. And even if one gets educated, reaching the workplace and being able to work and perform becomes a huge challenge. Without access, even basic social living such as going to a cinema or a park or watching TV or reading a book becomes difficult or impossible for a majority of people with disabilities.
7. Is there data on the enforcement of the disability law by various states?
I am afraid, there is no such data. At least not that I am aware of.
Which State does better than the others depends on who is ruling the State. I can tell you from experience that here the reference is not to any political party but to the individual political leader. If she/he is sensitised and exhibits the necessary political will, things happen in a flash. If she/he is apathetic or not all that bothered, by and large nothing moves.
8. How do other Asian countries fare in empowering the disabled?
I have been very impressed to see many things happening in other countries of Asia and the Global South, and have often wondered as to why India continues to lag behind.
When the Government of India was spending lakhs of rupees fighting my PIL in the Supreme Court on the simple idea of having Ambulifts at our airports, I was able to use one with ease and dignity in Vietnam and then in Kazakhstan! Let me rejoice by telling you that finally, I won the case. Today, India has Ambulifts and more than the disabled people, it is benefiting our senior citizens who have acquired mobility impairments.