National Awards for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, 2020 | Ruing the loss of a moment on stage

President Ram Nath Kovind giving away the award to Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh.  

President Ram Nath Kovind’s decision to step down from the stage to hand over awards to wheelchair users during the national awards for the disability sector on December 3 has left some awardees and activists crying foul.

The annual awards ceremony, organised by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) under the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, was held on the International Day of PwD at the Vigyan Bhawan here. Individuals, institutions, government departments and States are honoured for their work of empowering PwD at the annual awards. While other PwD awardees were invited on stage to receive their awards from the President, Mr. Kovind walked down from the stage to award the wheelchair users.

Para-swimmer Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh, who won the award for best sportsperson with disability, said the awardees had gone through several dress rehearsals where a hydraulic lift was used for wheelchairs.

“If we can do the dress rehearsals, we can do the final take as well. I’m not blaming the Ministry, but don’t make us feel like we are disabled again,” he said, adding that because of the last-minute change of plans, he was handed over the medal of another awardee.

2003 experience

For rights activist and wheelchair user Anjlee Agarwal, who received the national award from the then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2003 at the Vigyan Bhawan, this year’s ceremony brought back memories of her own experience. She said the wheelchair users were told that the President would walk to them to hand over the awards, but she had insisted on going on the stage.

“Two bodyguards assigned to me then pushed my wheelchair up a very steep ramp and I received a standing ovation for breaking the rules. But I wanted equality and the sense of grace and dignity of going up on stage to receive the award. I feel bad for the awardees that they were not given that few moments of dignity that they would have remembered all their lives,” Ms. Agarwal said.

She said there was a need to change the mindset and to lead with “actions, not words”.

A physician and activist with the group, Doctors with Disabilities, Satendra Singh pointed out similar experiences during other awards ceremonies as well. “When such discrimination is normalised, we can never achieve inclusion,” Dr. Singh said.

‘President’s decision’

Two officials of the Social Justice Ministry told The Hindu that Mr. Kovind had decided to walk down to the awardees on wheelchairs so as not to inconvenience them. One of the officials added that the hydraulic lift at the venue had encountered some problems, but the Central Public Works Department had addressed the same before the ceremony. The President’s gesture was one of “large-heartedness”, the official said.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 5:38:12 PM |

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