DISABILITY :CHALLENGES VS RESPONSES
( By Ali Baquer; Anjali Sharma )

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c-Rights of People With Disabilities

Need for Legislation :

The world for and of the disabled is changing at a rapid pace and the aspirations as well as expectations of people are also changing as fast. Advances in medical and surgical sciences, breakthroughs in technology, greater understanding of the causes of disability and improved methods of coping with it, increasing consciousness of civil rights and the emergence of people with disabilities displaying skills and knowledge to improve their own lives, are some of the factors which have contributed to the new thinking that the disabled deserve a dignified status in society on the same terms as the non-disabled.

Disabled people are a vast minority group which has been subjected to direct and indirect discrimination for centuries in most countries of the world, including India.

Charity to Rights :

The human rights movement has boldly and categorically shifted the attention of policy makers from the mere provision of charitable services to vigorously protecting their basic right to dignity and self-respect. In the new scenario, the disabled are viewed as individuals with a wide range of abilities and each one of them willing and capable to utilise his/her potential and talents. Society, on the other hand, is seen as the real cause of the misery of people with disabilities since it continues to put numerous barriers as expressed in education, employment, architecture, transport, health and dozens of other activities.

In a country like India the numbers of the disabled are so large, their problems so complex, available resources so scarce and social attitudes so damaging, it is only legislation which can eventually bring about a substantial change in a uniform manner. Although legislation cannot alone radically change the fabric of a society in a short span of time, it can nevertheless, increase accessibility of the disabled to education and employment, to public buildings and shopping centres, to means of transport and communication. The impact of well-directed legislation in the long run would be profound and liberating.

Anti-Discriminatory Law :

Disabled people in India, as elsewhere, deserved comprehensive legislation to cover all aspects of their lives. They need legal power to directly tackle the blatant, and more importantly, the discreet discrimination against them.

The new Act, Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights & Full Participation) Act, 1995 represents the culmination of years of hard work behind the scenes, countless hours of consultation between officials of Ministry of Welfare and of other Ministries and experts/ organisations working with and for disabled people, campaigning by disability activists for a better deal for disabled people. The more we discussed the problems of disability and the barriers society puts up to highlight them with knowledgeable people in India and abroad, the more convinced we became that our best endeavours would not make much progress without a legislative framework which outlaws discrimination. The greatest achievement was to convince people, ordinary men and women as well as politicians from all parties, convinced that disability is a civil rights issue and that discrimination against disabled must be recognised and stopped. Civil rights for disabled were seen as too important to be allowed to become the subject of political disagreements. Rights for disabled people moved up the political and social agenda of the nation. It became news, often on the front pages of the national press. There were several TV programmes, seminars and workshops. Until a coalition was formed, leading NGOs were competing with each other for leadership.

Total Integration :

Human rights are a matter of international concern and their advocates and guardians do exercise constructive influence across geographical and cultural boundaries. An increasing number of countries are opting for laws favourable to disabled people. Legislation would make direct/indirect discrimination against the disabled punishable. Legislation establishes a coherent and comprehensive framework for the promotion of just and fair policies and their effective implementation. It creates formal procedures which hasten the process of full and total integration of the disabled in the society. Legislation facilitates efficient enforcement of policies and permits strong measures against the law-breakers.

Partnership in Caring :

The Government, through its comprehensive and just leg


islation, has taken a lead to support the large community of people with disabilities in India and has provided a framework for the implementation of legal, progressive and economic activities. In addition to the statutory provisions and the services rendered by NGOs, a tremendous amount of informal support is given by the families and friends of the disabled. There are still many voluntary agencies and private enterprises with immense potential to contribute to the creation of a just and caring society in India, without the disabled peoples rights clearly entrenched the law and the over-reaching legislation, there could not have been satisfactory progress in changing the age-old attitudes of our society and of improving the quality of life for people with disabilities and non-disabled alike. The disabled should not be dependent any more. They should become an integral part of the society in every way. It is their right and the new law with emphasis on full participation declares, in no uncertain language, that they shall have it.

Disability Law Gets Enacted :

The Indian Parliament, for the first time, has legally endorsed the right of access for the disabled people to education and vocational training; employment practices; travel on public transport and mobility schemes; barrier - free environment and integrated living; information and communication strategies; independence and dignity. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Bill, 1995 was passed in December 1995 and was published in the Gazette of India on Monday, 1 January 1996 after receiving assent from the President of India, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma. It became enforceable on Wednesday, 7 February 1996.

The Act establishes responsibility on the society to make adjustments for disabled people so that they overcome various practical, psychological and social hurdles created by their disability. The Act places disabled people at par with other citizens of India in respect of education vocational training and employment.

There have been and are a number of programmes schemes and services for disabled people in India but so far there has been no separate law to protect the rights of disabled people. The new Act fills that void. Protection of the rights of people with disabilities was long overdue and the Government must be congratulated for taking this important and progressive step. The glory of this historical achievement, the Act, is shared by people with disabilities and their families; NGOs working in this field for and with the disabled disability campaigners who have been fighting hard for this cause in India and abroad; the people in the media and Members of Parliament in Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha who had voted unanimously for the Disability Bill.

Positive Guidelines :

There is little doubt that the new Act will help to develop positive action programmes as well as offer guidelines to make policies in favour of disabled people. The highlight of the Act is that it gives statutory recognition to the policy of three per cent reservation in all group C and D posts and has extended the reservation to Group A and B posts also. The Act declares that the State shall progressively ensure that every child with disability has access to free education until the age of 18 years. Until now the provision of free education had been restricted to children below 14 years.

The Act has several provisions to ensure equal opportunities, protection of rights and full participation of disabled people in mainstream activities of the society. The State has been entrusted with the responsibility to prevent disabilities, provision of medical care, education, training, employment and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities. Furthermore, the State must create a barrier-free environment for them, remove any discrimination against them which prevents them from sharing the development benefits, counteract any abuse or exploitation, lay down strategies for comprehensive development of programmes and services and for equalisation of opportunities.

Mechanisms for Implementation of the Law :

Sufficient attention has been paid to matters relating to the implementation of the intentions and provisions of the Act. This shall be done through constituting of coordination committees at the Central and State levels with the Welfare Minister as the chairperson and officials of ministries and concerned departments, NGOs working with and for disabled people and eminent people with disabilities as members to coordinate disability-related activities of the government, NGOs and others. Since most of the disabled complain against the discrimination they face throughout their lives on account of their disability, the new Act is designed to eliminate discrimination and create an equal society. It encourages greater involvement of disabled people in the world around them so that they may themselves contribute to improving the quality of their lives. In order to realise the intentions of the Law, disabled people willing to take part in consultative exercises with the planners and providers of services and goods, must be identified, supplied with information on the range of services available and helped to work through existing or new action groups to deal with disability issues.

Civil Rights :

The India disability law treats disability as a civil rights rather than a health and welfare issue. The Law recognises that the primary issue facing disabled people is their exclusion from the mainstream activities of the society and hence the emphasis in the Law is on full integration and participation. It is discrimination, and not impairment, that disables people. The Law recognises the importance of consultation with disabled people on issues which directly or indirectly affect them. The government, therefore, has set up mechanisms for consultations with people with all disabilities. Thus, those measures are carefully avoided which remove one group's barriers but increase them for others.

Within our culture negative stereotypes of disabled people are far too common and have been in circulation for such a long time that they appear to have become the norm. The new Law would help in bringing about cultural change and influencing attitudes and expectations of disabled people, their families and friends, their neighbours and schools, their employers and the shops they go to, the professionals who serve them, their lawyers and teachers, the bus and taxi drivers and scores of others. The stereotype is clear disabled people must be pitied and given charity or that they and the society in which they live should forget that they have a disability. The implication of these impressions and images is that there can be nothing positive or beautiful or strong or powerful or productive or useful about disabled people. Yet most of disabled people are all of these and much more.

Positive Role for Disabled People :

This already complex social and psychological situation is made far worse by those using disability or the disabled themselves to raise funds, beg for alms on street corners and encourage people to give money to these "poor, pitiable human beings who have been trapped by their fate in a cycle of deprivation and misery". By insisting on greater participation of disabled people in all activities of society the new Law has highlighted the role of disabled people as the assertive, productive and constructive providers of services and not as mere passive receivers of these and a burden on society. Projecting positive images of disabled people in the media must be done in a consistent and systematic manner.

Benefits to the Entire Society :

It is sincerely hoped that the new law will create an accessible society through not just the buildings and footpaths and railway platforms but the hearts and minds of Indian people will become more receptive, more open, more unbiased. The law is our important commitment to ensure full participation of disabled people in all activities of our society. Beyond cynicism, doubt and fidelity of a handful few, there is thoughtful debate in favour of disabled people. The law could not have been enacted if lawmakers and those who formulate policies did not really care for disabled people with the enactment of the Law more and more people will pay attention to the real problems of disabled people because the law asks something from each and every Indian, whether disabled or not. This law, and its effective enforcement, will benefit the entire society and therefore it is imperative that all of us do our best to make it work. The law talks of independence, dignity and security. Disabled people have always experienced exclusion and segregation. They have been prevented from using opportunities to make contribution to society with their fullest capacity. The law offers them equal opportunities. Now that the law has been enacted, the issues before the advocacy groups are different and the government agencies and NGOs must find new ways of serving disabled people. Measures to prevent and diagnose disabilities must be re-strengthened. There is a large number of children with disabilities who are unable to attend schools or are actually barred from classes. Unemployment of people with disabilities shall remain a mighty challenge for quite some time. The responsibility for improving job outlook for these people rests with society. Economic independence is essential for people with disabilities to become active and useful members of our society.

Disability and Technology :

The new technology can open up exciting avenues for the progress of disabled people and those responsible for designing and manufacturing goods and equipment and planning services must not forget the special needs of disabled people. Technology can help to fulfil the various promises the new law has made. It will help to bring down barriers to fuller participation of disabled people in all activities of the society. Technology would bring out substantial number of disabled people from their miserable pit of isolation and extreme dependence.

Disability Issues Kept Out of Politics :

With this long-delayed and much-awaited piece of social legislation, India has succeeded in outlawing discrimination against disabled people. During the Winter Session (1995) of the Parliament when the political parties had locked horns over political and ideological concerns and the business of the Parliament had been suspended for several days, disability issues did not lend themselves to become the cause for political division. The support for 90 million disabled people in India remained the primary concern for all Members of Parliament and no one involved disability in any political controversy and debate. All the lawmakers were determined to give their full support to the Disability Bill. They seemed to have a clear idea on how a civilised society should behave towards those countrymen who are disabled.

In the passing of the law the Parliament has stopped pretending that although disabled people do exist, they can not be included in the priority list of entitlements claimed by non-disabled Indian citizens. The new law demonstrates the undeniable philosophical shift from charity and welfare to civil rights. Talking down to disabled people in patronising and paternalistic terms has given way to a language ensuring equality and dignity. Instead of segregation of disabled people there is now emphasis on their full participation and total integration.

Disability as a Social Construct :

The impact of new legislation on old and deepseated discriminatory practices and attitudes against disabled people would take along time to be felt. Disability is essentially a social construct and reflects a flaw in the thinking processes of our society. The person with polio does not have a problem, the problem is rather with the building which prevents his wheelchair to get inside or with the bus which stops him from riding in it or the taxi driver who ignores him on the roadside. The new law has given boost to the self-esteem of every disabled person in the country. The law is important since it liberates a disabled person. He/she should have ample opportunities to change his/her life rather than to remain dependent on others. Feelings of anger, frustration and self-disgust will gradually get replaced by competence, independence and health. Disabled people need no longer waste their enegries in fighting oppression and discrimination but instead should invest them in improving the world around them.

Liberation for All :

One out of every ten people in India suffers from one form of disability or the other that is they possess physical or mental impairment substantially limits one or more of major life activities. In other words, 90 million of our countrymen live with, and learn to overcome in their own individual ways, problems which non-disabled can seldom understand. The law should enable not only one in ten people but nine out of every ten people to lead their lives to their fullest potential. The law declares that disability need not be an insurmountable handicap as long as it can be properly understood and catered for. The law

attempts to eradicate factors which produce low self-esteem in disabled people and empowers them to confront the insensitivity and ignorance of others.

The real danger now is that those who had been vigorously demanding its enactment might become complacent and think that the job has been done. The Act must be implemented in schools and colleges, in factories and workplaces, in transport and shopping centres. People with disabilities, and those who care for them, must ensure that discrimination is outlawed and barriers are removed as much from the physical environment as from the attitudes of ordinary people. The real battle for the right to full citizenship and active participation of disabled people is ahead. The Act is comprehensive but must be enforced with sincerity and determination.

The First Steps on a Journey of a Thousand Miles :

"What is disability your frame of mind is the real disability". Let us change our attitudes and help to change others. Make a commitment to end unfair and unfounded prejudices. Open minds and doors to people with disabilities. Repeat in speeches, writings and films three words : Disability, Equality, Liberty. Listen to disabled people. Serve disabled people. Work with disabled people. Travel with disabled people. Shop with disabled people. Have them as friends.

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