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Power of the powerless

With a large population of physically challenged people, Indian society is just waking up to their needs. SAFIA SIRCAR details the efforts taken by some organisations and individuals to make a difference.

There is a need to create a barrier-free environment.

IN India, there are almost 50 million differently-abled people. Fifty per cent of the 960 million living below the poverty line are unable to pay for their treatments; 4.6 million people need artificial limbs to walk, and 1.4 million require crutches and canes; only five per cent of people with mobility problems receive any kind of artificial limbs; 80 per cent of rehabilitation facilities are in the big cities and towns; 78 per cent of people with disabilities live in the countryside remote from these facilities; only 0.1 per cent of people with disabilities have jobs in government institutions; only about five per cent of children with disabilities go to school.

She is waiting, patiently. Thirteen-year-old Ramadevi wishes to join a school which has a nearby hostel. Right now Rama crawls to her school. She has polio. Sometime back she got a tricycle from the Satya Sai Seva Samiti working in Ellututtla village of A.P.'s Anantapur district. Her sister accompanied her to school then but soon became impatient. Later, Rama's brother removed the wheels from her tricycle and fixed them to his bicycle. Rama has no option but to crawl, wounding her hands and tearing her clothes as she inches towards her distant school. Her father says, "The cycle is more important for her brother."

Balaji Krishnamurthy studies at University of Minnesota, U.S.A. He has been stuttering since childhood. His parents tried to train his speech but failed. A speech therapist convinced his parents that they should just forget it and it would go away. Well, it didn't. He writes, "Those early days were pretty traumatic. I always used to feel that stuttering is one disability where people laugh at you. Nobody laughs at people who are blind or deaf. But early scars are difficult to heal. I went through humiliation, teasing and frustration."

Rama's story is no less different. Teachers do not help. She has no friends to play with nor is she invited to any of the social festivities for she is considered to be a deyyam (devilish spirit). Promises of being taken to a hospital remain unfulfilled. Her family work as daily labourers and a day off can wreck havoc for the family's economy. Her neighbours comment, "The pains and difficulties of her parents won't end till she or they die." But Rama aspires to join a school with a hostel, wishes for a toilet where she can sit and dreams of a tricycle to move about.

"Take a look around and see how many of our public buildings are accessible?" asks Sudhakara Reddy sardonically. "The main problem is to access public transportation. People with disabilities have as much right as the non-disabled. We have the right to demand access that is equitable, maximises our independence, is safe and allows us to travel with dignity." Sudhakara is very vocal for the rights of the disabled community as he has an extreme form of locomotory disability. He moves around in a wheel chair and needs assistance for daily activities but he is a man with immense focused energy. In 1999, he started his own organisation, the Society for Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities despite a heavy work schedule working as a senior executive with a public company. He uses his background in electronics and computer engineering to assess if structures are access friendly for a disabled person.

Sudhakara's demands are simple. The parking area should allot spaces for tricycles, railway stations should build ramps at the main entrance, and the height of counter windows should be lowered. The danger of falling onto the tracks can be prevented, especially for blind people, by marking a dark yellow strip with blisters as a warning block two feet away from the edge. Disabled people are casually told to use the track for parcel trolleys at the end of the station to change platforms. Sudhakara questions, "Is an elevator a luxury or necessity? Eighteen per cent of the commuting population needs lifts. Not just disabled but the old, pregnant woman, tiny children or ill persons can benefit. The larger question, is are not disabled people entitled to citizen services?"

Do expenses deter building disabled friendly structures? Sudhakara grins, "Many think that building such places are too expensive, say the need for ramps and bigger lifts, but our research has very clearly shown that costs involved do not cross the budgeted line. It will cost the same but not more. The MoU signed between the Government of Andhra Pradesh and Indian Railways visualises a grand Multi Model Sub-Urban Commuter Transportation System linking buses and trains at a cost of Rs. 150 crores. All they need is to spend Rs. three crores extra to make it accessible." Sudhakara's intensive research simply smashes the strong belief prevalent that barrier free structures are unaffordable.

By next year Sudhakara is gunning to have a compilation of laws that need to be reformed, provide design consultancy to architecture firms on ways to build disabled friendly buildings.

Ask how, and he answers, "The answer lies in thinking innovatively. Awards can be given for the best accessible building, guides can be printed listing the accessible buildings or design formats can be made available." He and his team will start training 60 disabled people to advocate for a barrier free environment.

"Officials respond more to an organised and systematic approach rather than to individual approach," says, Mr. B.N Yugandhar a former bureaucrat now managing trustee of Commitments, a NGO established in 1985. Commitments successfully forged a working relationship between the non-disabled and disabled people. It has established strong self-help groups. These self-help groups have 10-15 disabled people as members. Ten such self-help groups form a sangam. Commitments aims to build 1,000 sangams consisting of around 1,50,000 disabled people in five districts. Now, there are 150. Thirty-five sangams have a thriving thrift activity. But more importantly, as Mr. Pratap Kumar, who handles Commitments at Kosgi, Mahabubnagar, points out the sangams are taking on the role of health consultants. It is estimated that nearly 60-70 per cent of all disabilities are due to preventable causes like malnutrition, communicable diseases, childhood infections or accidents. Commitment members are trained and informed about health and handicap problems. It is the disabled sangam member that one approaches to know about vaccinations, pre and post-natal care or control of communicable diseases.

But there are problems. Since the setting up of the first Special Employment Exchange, in almost 41 years, just 100,000 disabled persons have been employed! According to the National Sample Survey of 1991, there are 7 million employable disabled people waiting to get a job. But there are winds of change. Running along similar lines of Commitments is MORE (Movement for Rural Emancipation) set up in 1984. A. Prasad, based in Chitoor district's Madanapalle, says that they have formed 44 self help groups in three districts, through the continued efforts of 14 MORE workers, six of whom are disabled. MORE is training a couple of more disabled villagers aiming to have all 14 and more disabled as community based leaders. These social workers are paid Rs. 600 a month. They have also identified 15 activities for the disabled to earn few rupees independently, as leaf plate making, sericulture, or a small loan is given to say start a tea shop. And Balaji's wonderful words flit through my mind, "All of us are mature enough to understand that life is extremely unfair. We just have to make the best use of what we have. Life is a gamble, in which each of us is given a deck of cards to play with. I guess we just have to make the best use of the cards we have. I intend to."

This series of articles has been brought out by the Press Institute of India as a sequel to the Manual of Reporting on Human Rights in India brought out by the Press Institute with the support of the British Council and the Thomson Foundation of Britain.

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