By Arosis Sahoo*
Recently, I was browsing through a bunch of articles when one headline in “The New York Times” caught my attention. It read, “How to disclose a disability to your employer (and whether you should?)”. My first response was to ignore it on the grounds of being ignorant and inconsiderate. A closer introspection, though, led me to the conclusion that the report was less of a mockery and more of a useful guide to a vast segment of the society.
An ignored community of people, so vast in number, that if they were to make a country, it would be the third most populated country. Yet the society has somehow managed to manipulate and silence them for decades, backed by a plethora of manufactured lies and stories, further backed by more lies.
Underlying the article was a glimpse of how they have been deprived of the glorious feeling of self-acceptance and confidence. The article was a true testament to countless stories of such disabled people, who have been subsumed in the darkness of self-pity and contemplation, of being bounded not by dreams and abilities but by society. This forces many into a life of anonymity and seclusion. They are continuously fighting a battle to prove their worth. Yet the society never fails to discriminate.
While the article we are talking about was mentioned in “The New York Times”, the situation of the disabled population in India is no different, if not worse.
Disability population accounts for 15% of the total world population. This boils down to a headcount of close to one billion people, out of which around one-fifth of the total population or about 110-190 million people are affected by significant disability. In India, there are more than 2.6 crore disabled people, who account for 2.21 percent of the country’s population. The Indian average being lower than the global average is not exactly an achievement given that there are many forms of disabilities that are yet to be officially recognized as a disability in the census.
The news of disabled people being discriminated against in all sphere of life, starting from Uber rides to offices of the multinationals, is very much real. And much to the surprise, it begins with the constitution. For example, the constitution which, through its Articles 15 and 16, prohibits any discrimination in the matter of access to public facilities, employment and education on the grounds of caste, sex, religion, race, etc. is completely silent on disability.
The discrimination against the disabled community is very much official and ingrained in veins of the society, to the extent that they have been systematically excluded from even the census of the country. What could be more pitiful than the fact that the government denies counting the disabled people as separate individuals in the first place? The disabled community was excluded in the census of 1941 to 1971. They were included in the census of 1981, again to be excluded in 1991. They were finally included in the census of 2001, only after wide-scale protests.
The society, which was supposed to be a tool to empower them, has somehow successfully managed to judge every disabled individual on a unfair, binary scale. Families having disabled persons are also often looked down upon by society. Many disabled children are not even given an opportunity to excel in life and are put into orphanages as soon as they are born.
The children who manage to cross all these hurdles are ultimately discriminated in schools and workplaces. It is a result of this discrimination that most of the disabled children choose to drop out of school over facing daily humiliation by their friends. This significantly contributes to the enormous dropout rates among the CWDs (children with disabilities). People may not be aware of the consequences of what they do, but the impact that it can have on a child’s life can be devastating. This gradually leads to a low rate of literacy.
Ultimately, it is used by a segment of society, to justify the discrimination. These are the individuals who question the abilities of the disabled people in contributing to developmental activity. The obsession of the society with ableism and perfection is heavily promoted in our culture, and any kind of disability is frowned upon. It is evident from numerous incidents whereby people are made fun of, for even as small a deficiency as stammering.
As per UNESCO, 75 percent of children with disabilities in India do not go to schools. A large proportion of the CWDs ends up taking admissions with the NIOS. Out of this, the biggest group of CWDs being enrolled with the NIOS consists of the children with learning disabilities.
Even if a person is able to excel and prove his capabilities in this extremely unfair setup, discrimination does not end there. There have been cases wherein candidates have been declared ineligible to hold any post other than Indian Revenue services, despite having cleared the UPSC examinations. Discrimination is equally prevalent in the workplaces. The bias in the workplace is visible from the gaps in pay. The gap in today’s context is more based on the perceived gap in abilities than the actual gap in capabilities.
Disability Rights Movement – the journey so far
The constant fight against such discrimination led to the emergence of the social model of disability. This is contradictory to the medical model of disability in the sense that it considers disability not as a medical issue with a person but as an issue which stems from barriers in the society.
The 1970s – Until the 1970s, disabled people were considered as outcasts and were mainly associated with professions such as begging and music. They were considered as incapable of making any significant contribution to society and were looked upon more like a liability to the community. Various manufactured lies such as karma and sins of their previous lives etc. were used as a way to justify the discrimination.
It is a result of this discrimination and denial of essential opportunities that led to the emergence of the disability rights movement in India, in the early 1970s. Many other factors contributed to the rise of voices against discrimination. After the World War II, many people in the West were left disabled by the war. They were considered as war heroes and thus, were able to mobilize massive support in their favor. The movement in India was also hugely influenced by similar events in the West.
The 1980s – there was a significant shift in policy from the welfare model to the development model. Till now the disabled people were majorly seen as subjects of charity, but from now onwards there was a change in this viewpoint mainly due to the growing awareness about the issues and the increased possibility of curing the disability to a certain extent, given the advancement in science and technology. However, this idea was still limited to a few well- off sections of society. The period also witnessed growing awareness relating to the subject because of the push by united nations in the form of declaring 1982-93s the decade of disabled persons.
It was during 1986 that the government of India established the rehabilitation council of India in 1986 to standardize and regulate the training process and programs for the rehabilitation of person with disabilities. The very next year saw the enactment of the Mental Health Act 1987, that focused on regulating standards on the mental health institutions.
The 1990s – there were drastic changes during this period. However, the movement and the results were limited by the fact that most of the legislative power regarding disability was under state supervision. The signing of the Proclamation of Equality and Full Participation of People with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific region, gave the government, power under Article 253, to pass legislation in this regard. This led to the enactment of the PWD Act in the parliament in 1995.
The provisions of the act focused mainly on early detection and prevention of disability, employment, education, affirmative action, research and manpower development, barrier-free access, etc. The law also enforced a reservation of 3 percent (one percent each for heating disability, locomotor disability, and visual disability) of the seats in educational institutes and government services for the disabled people.
The 2000s – After prolonged advocacy, the disabled population was finally included in the 2001 census, but people with intellectual and mental disabilities were entirely left out. During this period, the central government also came up with the National Policy on Disability in the year 2006. This was meant to cover certain key areas such as social security, employment, education, support access, etc.
2010 onwards – the period saw actualization of certain key policies, meant to ensure equal opportunities to the disabled community. The Rights of Persons with Disability Bill (RPWD) was initially drafted in 2011. It was meant to fulfill India’s obligation with respect to UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). Many different disabilities were included in the bill, in accordance with the UNCRPD.
Finally, the bill was passed in 2016. It defined the meaning of disability for the very first time and extended it from 7 categories to 21 categories, to include mental illness, chronic neurological conditions, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, blindness, muscular dystrophy, thalassemia, multiple disabilities. The percentage of seats to be reserved in educational institutions and government services was increased to 5%.
Issues to be addressed
Even though the government has been successful in ensuring a certain degree of equality to the disabled, in terms of opportunities of employment, education, etc., the majority of work is yet to be undertaken. Discrimination is still widely prevalent. There has been a clear failure in the enactment of more stringent policies to prohibit discrimination at all levels.
The major issue is that the disabled community has not been able to come under one umbrella organization and mobilize people in large numbers to address their concerns. Currently, each segment of the community is divided and is working towards the problems of a section of people suffering from a particular disability. As of now, the efforts of various groups working towards the cause, are very divided and scattered.
Another important issue, with the movement, could be seen as a lack of a single leader capable of bringing all these sections together. This could also be seen as the reason behind the efforts being fragmented. Moreover, the media is also mostly ignorant of all this, given that the topic is not interesting enough to create hype around the matter.
The way forward
To end discrimination at all levels, there needs to be proactive involvement from the government, and initiatives need to be implemented at the ground level. Some of the steps that can be taken to improve the situation include:
- The issues can be solved only when the segments unify and are able to bring the media together with them. This will force the politicians to work for their betterment as they cannot simply ignore such a big vote bank.
- RTE Act should be amended to improve the state of education for CWDs, ensuring better alignment with RPWD Act.
- Public buildings should be redesigned to account for the issues faced by the disabled community. The buildings should be modified accordingly, and strictly ensure adherence to timeline.
- Encourage the use of technology to impart education to the CWDs. This would ensure quality education without the hassles of covering long distances and the discrimination at schools.
- Children should be educated and sensitized towards the issue.
- Introduce more disability-friendly curriculum in the education system.
- Introduce legislation prohibiting employers from asking candidates, questions related to disability.
*Student, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad