In my 17 years of being what people call a ‘disabled activist’, one thing I have never known to have faced is a loss for words. But like they say, there’s always a first time. The other day, a friend asked me “Aren’t you tired of doing what you do?”. I was taken aback, perhaps a bit annoyed. After all, even I take myself so much for granted!
I smiled and kept quiet, but as the evening wore on, the question had gripped me. It kept coming back at me. “Am I tired?” I asked myself. Not sure if I wanted a confrontation with my own self, I tried to put the question away. By nightfall, it was haunting me!
Left with no choice, I began to reflect. 17 years of by & large the same work. Advocacy, bordering on activism. Education, Employment and Access. Press Conferences, Rallies, even Dharnas. An eternal optimist and yet, a certified ‘confrontationist’. The enfant terrible of the Indian disability sector, constantly in someone’s crosshair, good at turning friends into foes, and yet not bad at ‘converting’ opponents into allies!
Same work. Same accusations. Even, the same gossip! Am I not tired?
The truth is that I am tired. Very tired. Who wouldn’t be? Repeatedly reminding India of our existence, that we are at least 70 million, that disabled Indians have rights too, that damn it we are as much citizens of this Nation as the other non-disabled are!
But then, there is another truth! And that truth (the inner voice) says this: “I am tired, but I have to go on...”
ANOTHER WORLD DISABILITY DAY!
Tomorrow, 3rd December, is World Disability Day (WDD). We have been celebrating it at India Gate for 12 years. There are times when it almost feels like an annual ritual. An annual event that has to be organised, because tradition demands so. Then, at other times, it feels like an upcoming major festival! A senior colleague had once said that WDD for disabled people is like Eid, Holi, Diwali and Christmas, all rolled into one. It is that one day that we all look forward to.
We look forward to this one day, because it is only this one day that India remembers us! Government, politicians, media, civil society, all suddenly get a collective jolt to realise that there are some 70 million disabled Indians amongst them. Functions are organised, events held, charity abound, posters printed, announcements made, celebrities paraded, spots telecast, promises, promises and ofcourse, that many more promises!!
Promises are made only to be broken. Worst, forgotten. And the whole charade is then repeated 364 days later on ‘another’ World Disability Day.
In 2005, the then HRD Minister announced a ‘Comprehensive Action Plan for Inclusive Education’ in Parliament. The following statements were made: It will be our objective to make mainstream education not just available but accessible, affordable and appropriate for students with disabilities. All the schools in the country will be made disabled-friendly by 2020 and all educational institutions including hostels, libraries, labs and buildings will have barrier free access. All universities will have a Disability Coordinator. University Grants Commission will assist all universities to establish a separate Department of Disability Studies. Talking text books, reading machines, computers with speech software, sign language interpreters, transcription services…
All the above statements, I have quoted verbatim from the Minister’s speech. Not an off the cuff speech, carried away by emotions, at some Spastics Society, say in Mumbai! This speech was made inside the Parliament, the so-called Temple of our Democracy.
It will soon be 5 years since this otherwise well intentioned speech was made. And it doesn’t give me any happiness to say that not even a half-hearted beginning has been made. Making ‘all the schools’ in the country disabled-friendly is a tall order, but how much does it take to ensure that ALL universities appoint a disability coordinator? Four union budgets have since been presented. Has even a paisa been allocated to ensure that our hostels, our libraries and our labs become barrier-free??
The Disability Act was enacted on 7th February, 1996. Section 41 mandates ‘incentives’ for the private sector to motivate them to give jobs to people with disabilities. Dream target: 5% of the workforce!
In 1999, NCPEDP conducted a Corporate Research Study on the so-called ‘Top 100’ companies operating in India, a few them being MNCs. As many as 70 responded. Average rate of employment of disabled people was a mere 0.4%. While this was the overall average, private sector was at 0.2%, while MNCs were at 0.05%.
Yet, no incentives were ever announced. It took a decade for the government to wake up from its slumber! Finally, in the 2007 budget, Mr. P. Chidambaram did announce a scheme on paper, but even there the ‘incentives’ are so miniscule that no corporate seems to be interested. Not even SMEs. Against the 100,000 jobs that were promised every year, only 261 have resulted in the almost two years that have gone by. Yes, you can pinch yourself please. The figures are indeed that astonishing!
The least said the better. The law categorically says that all public buildings and transportation will be made disabled-friendly. The law was passed by Parliament in 1995, enacted in 1996. It has been 13 years and more. Forget making the existing infrastructure accessible, not even what is being newly constructed is disabled-friendly. From the fancy NDMC toilets to the reception at the Supreme Court, or the brand new airport in Bangalore, by and large nothing is ‘accessible’. A wheelchair user girl gets admission on merit at a well known law college in Pune and is then denied education, only because the girls hostel was not conducive to her needs. The law is there, complaints are made against the college but no action is taken. The girl is heart broken, the family distraught. She gives up on her dream to be a lawyer. Forever.
And this is the bitter reality in the otherwise 21st Century, modern, nuclear age India, where the present Union Urban Development Minister himself happens to be an orthopaedically impaired person.
AND YET, WE WILL CELEBRATE!!!
Tomorrow, under the clear blue sky, thousands of disabled people will gather yet once again at India Gate. The sun should shine. Disability colours of blue and yellow will reflect and spread cheer. Some, like me, may cry. Others will ofcourse sing and dance and look forward to a better day.