Crossing a great divide

To date, people with disabilities have remained at the lowest rung of progress: societal acceptance and the benefits of education have been slow in reaching them. S. ANANDALAKSHMY writes on the role of technology in the integration of the disabled into society. The INTEND conference, to be held in Chennai later this week, is a good opportunity for this.

THERE is an oft-quoted Chinese adage about making haste slowly. It is good advice to give someone rushing headlong into a new venture, but it is not always the best advice to take when dealing with a new idea. In the matter of including the disabled into our everyday life, we have been very slow. We are about three decades behind most of the developed world in providing for the inclusion of all citizens into our civic life. Clearly the facilities of travel, entertainment and education are for the able-bodied and the stalwart. One can quote examples from a variety of experiences: trying to board an inter-state bus, where the steps are too steep, to taking the mandatory ferry from the runway to the terminal, where the doors of the bus are badly designed and the steps, deep and unfriendly. I remember travelling on the Greyhound service in the U.S., where a lower step would be levered into position when one had to board and drawn back when the bus moved. Surely, it is technology that we can afford. Its lack reflects, rather, a sparse imagination and a certain degree of indifference to one's clients.

Our school systems generally cater to the strong and the successful, constantly rewarding them and drawing comparisons in their favour to the less achieving. Our hospitals and clinics do take care of the sick, but the desperately ill and the very poor are often made to feel unwelcome. These examples can be multiplied a hundred fold. Some of the prevailing attitudes can be traced back to atavistic practices, like the Spartan exposure to the elements of unhealthy or weak newborn infants. (If they survived the night, they were taken back as worthy of rearing.) Surely, the evolution of ideas over the last few centuries has resulted in the universal awareness of the concept of human rights. There is no denying that there are violations of human rights in many parts of the world, even today, but they soon become a matter of public debate and are not treated with impunity. Even though many bemoan the loss of simplicity, even of the innocence of earlier eras, we have to be grateful to the living in a time when every person born is acknowledged to have inalienable rights.

To date, in our country, female gender and physical disability are two conditions under which even mere survival is in question. For over a decade, we have been hearing of the cases of female infanticide among the Kallars in Usilampatti, in Tamil Nadu. Voluntary organisations have gone in with education and empowerment schemes to change community and family attitudes to girl children. The Indian Council of Child Welfare, Tamil Nadu, has worked consistently and steadily in that area, with some degree of success. However, there is a strong suspicion that the decrease in female infanticide is followed by an increase in the cases of female foeticide, a result of the availability of the new technology of sex determination in utero. These are everyday murders in which the body is never found and the culprit is never caught. It does not cease to amaze one that the killings take place with so little evidence of guilt.

The first round of analysis of the recent Census revealed the shocking ratio of female to male in the states of Haryana and Punjab. It is hard to accept that the friendly neighbourhood grocer, school teacher, or accountant one meets at the library or Gurdwara, supports the killing of female infants. That sounds shocking, but it is undeniable. In this context, it is a matter offering some hope that the religious leadership in the Punjab has called for a concerted action against female foeticide and infanticide. Other religious leaders must follow this sterling example and point out that the taking of life is an act against God. Compassion and a concern to protect and nurture life must surely be central to all religious teachings.

If the mere fact of being female is treated with scant regard, guess what happens to children with physical disabilities, hearing or visual impairment or retarded cognitive functioning. In the past decades, such children have been shut away in the darkest corners of the house; others asked to disappear when a visitor arrives. The child with a disability was frequently treated as a curse, something to be endured rather than nurtured. But in these matters, there is a sea change in the attitude and mindset of the family, due to the globalisation of ideas and the consequent awareness of the rights of the child.

The electronic revolution of the last two decades has proved to be a fairy godmother to the disabled. It may not have been part of a grand plan, but it has happened, one could say, serendipitously. We hear of children with dyslexia, picking up reading and writing skills using a computer, which would do at their command, what they themselves could not do. There are reports of blind children, hearing what they type out, transfused with joy at the results. There are computer programmes for the hearing impaired who learn easily how to connect a word with the picture of an object, and find that their vocabulary increases by leaps and bounds. And the computer is both a patient and an unemotional teacher.

If we now extend the computer to learning in one's own mother tongue, one can see why it is a quantum leap in terms of pedagogy for children with disabilities. The English language has been proving to be the great Class Divide, unfairly separating children into two categories, whatever their other skills and competencies might be. English is on the syllabus, for all children taking their school leaving examinations, but non- comprehension and inability to communicate in it are widespread. Through the education system, we continue to perpetrate a fraud on the vast numbers who put their trust in us to teach them. The answer is not to agitate against the neocolonialism of language, but to improve our methods of teaching a foreign language. In addition, we must open out opportunities for all young people to use their own languages for everyday living, as well as for access to technology and the knowledge systems of the world. If we believe in equity and inclusiveness, we cannot fail to see the how IT can be a hand maiden in the process. IT dissolves the barriers of school walls and national boundaries and distance is no longer distant. Surely, it is a sense of magic that we would wish to share with the less privileged.

This is the context in which INTEND 2001, a National Conference meeting in Chennai from June 22-25, is expecting to bring governmental and non-governmental agencies working with or for persons with disability, together with people from IT and related technologies, to take stock of existing and emerging solutions for reaching people, young and old, including those with sensory handicaps, to meet their needs of education and employable skills.

It has been clear through the ages, that knowledge is power; today the connection is more immediate. Those who are concerned over changing the situation of the poor, the young and the disabled, now have a choice to empower them through the new technologies.