TALK POINT: Has India’s new disability rights law begun to fix chronic inaccessibility for the disabled?

A year-and-a-half ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ambitious programme ‘Accessible India’. But people with disabilities continue to struggle against inaccessible infrastructure and services. Can India afford to delay any longer? We ask experts Javed Abidi, Nipun Malhotra, Neha Arora, Amba Salelkar, Virali Modi, Pradeep Raj, Shanti Auluck and Mukesh Jain.

Accessibility audits of public buildings in 50 cities are gathering dust – JAVED ABIDI, Chairperson, Disabled People’s International

No Matter how well intentioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi is, India as a country is still not taking disability with the seriousness that it deserves. The country is as inaccessible for its 120 million disabled citizens as it always was.

On 3 December 2015, when the so-called Accessible India Campaign was launched amid much publicity, tremendous hopes were built (mine  included) when we were promised that by July 2016, at least 50 prominent government buildings in 50 Indian cities would be made “fully accessible”. Some rushed, very poor quality audits were made and now the reports are gathering dust in the Department of Disability Affairs.

Accessibility of our airports and railway stations, of our buses and trains, of our websites and apps, and the availability of sign language interpreters is as much of a distant dream for us disabled Indians as it always was.

I am not as worried about the past as I am about the future. Older buildings would cost money and time to retrofit but what about all the new infrastructure that is being created in the name of Smart Cities or Digital India or even all the new toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan! If the government was/is serious about its commitment towards its disabled citizens, then it must be both, visible and measureable. I don’t see that as of now.

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Employing people with disabilities makes good business sense — NIPUN MALHOTRA, CEO, Nipman Foundation

There are two broad categories of companies that employ Persons with Disabilities in India.

Companies that have made a business case around hiring the disabled:

Visually-impaired Bhavesh Bhatia began making and selling candles on the street in the 1990s.  Today, his firm Sunrise Candles makes over 10,000 varieties of candles, with clients in 65 countries and provides jobs to over 2,000 visually challenged people.

Mirakle couriers was started by a young Oxford graduate who said courier delivery boys don’t have to communicate with their customers. He hired hearing-impaired carriers by giving them map enabled phones. Today, he has 45 employees handling more than 2,000 couriers a day.

Employment in the mainstream sector:

Visit a Lemon Tree hotel and you are likely to meet a wheelchair user help you with check-in and logistics, the room you’re allotted could have been maintained by someone with autism; at the coffee shop you may be served by someone with Down syndrome.  Lemon Tree aims to have 25 per cent of their staff as disabled. Chains like ITC and Taj are now catching up. Hotels have reported lower attrition, happier customers and increased workforce morale.

The IT industry has been hiring autistic programmers and those with locomotor disabilities for desk jobs. Manufacturing firms have now started hiring deaf employees to work in noisy areas.

A major reason for not hiring the disabled is inaccessible office infrastructure. I suggest the government allow corporates to use their CSR money (or give them tax incentives) to make existing infrastructure accessible. They must not get a completion certificate for new infrastructure without having an accessibility NOC (like fire NOCs).

I dream of an India where the disabled are a resource for tax collection and not just a cause for tax spending.

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Disabled people travelling from other countries don’t even consider India as a destination – NEHA ARORA, Founder, Planet Abled

Accessible travel for people with disabilities is still a very new concept in India. It is considered a luxury, and has never been the focal point of the public institutions.

For a person with a disability or a caretaker, the idea of travelling to an unknown territory immediately brings up a lot of questions about inaccessibility, and a lack of basic amenities and people’s sympathy.

Disabled people travelling from other countries don’t even consider India as a destination.

The UNESCO Heritage Sites are deemed accessible on paper, but very few go beyond mere compliance. Accessible toilets at tourist sites are across the road or some distance away, and often locked with no access to keys or there are no handle bars inside. They are used as storage. The ramps have coarse tiles in the name of beautification and wheelchairs get stuck.

At Victoria Memorial in Kolkata there is no flat pathway to reach the monument. Instead, there is a pebbled pathway. After climbing six steps there is a wheelchair available for use. Braille signage or description is in bad shape. And there are no navigation signs or accessible descriptive panels for the hearing-impaired.

Availability of accessible hotel rooms is limited to 3-star hotels and above. And they too will have just one or two accessible rooms.  What about the budget traveller? What about group tours for people with disabilities? The rooms have no accessibility options installed for the blind and deaf even in their accessible rooms.

Travel is not a privilege but basic human right. If more people with disabilities are seen out in the open, our society would begin to view their existence as regular human beings and understand their needs.

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Without adequate resources towards inclusion, even the best disability law will be meaningless – AMBA SALELKAR, disability rights lawyer

Eliminating discrimination against persons with disabilities is considerably different from addressing discrimination against other groups, because true elimination of discrimination involves substantial financial cost. This cost can be the difference between a living wage and the poverty line for families. This cost may also be the difference between profits and losses for companies.

The additional living cost of a person with disability has a wide range. It includes being forced to opt for private transportation because of accessibility concerns. It also includes an earning member of the family quitting their job to care for the person with disability.  The cost of inclusion of persons with disabilities is much more than the payment of a disability pension (which is currently horrifyingly low and varies widely from state to state). It includes making every service – education, health, IT, accessible to every person with a disability.  It includes procurement of universally designed goods and incorporating accessibility in the design of infrastructure. These costs are not unaffordable by any means, but require thoughtful allocations and rights-based approaches with the aim of maximising their participation.

Currently, the percentage of state and central budget allocations specific to persons with disabilities to total disbursements is not even 1 per cent — even though the government has ordained persons with disabilities with divine status.

Even the Accessible India Campaign merely repurposed existing allocations under the Scheme for Implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, with some incremental increase. Without maximisation of available resources towards inclusion, even the positive aspects of the law will remain on paper.

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Indian Railways treats people with disability like a piece of luggage — VIRALI MODI, disability activist leading campaign to make railways accessible

I am a disabled woman in Mumbai who loves to travel. But Indian trains are not wheelchair accessible. After being molested three times by porters, who were supposed to help me board the train, I decided to fight to make railways accessible.

The railway budget mentions that 500 stations will be made accessible, but what about trains? I’m working with a railway official from Trivandrum to procure portable ramps and small aisle-sized wheelchairs for easy transport of passengers with disabilities. It’s been implemented in Kerala, within 10 days of my petition. So why can’t it be done in other states?

There are over 25 million people that have some sort of disability in India. The government isn’t paying much heed to this issue of rail travel, despite the high-profile Accessible India campaign.

Surely, trains like the Tejas Express are not more important than wheelchair access in existing trains. It is not more important to “decorate” existing trains, rather than give adequate accessibility.

Here are some suggestions. Raise the level of platforms to that of the train. Make the train bathrooms accessible by making them more spacious, raising the height of the toilets, lowering the sink. Give enough space between berths to fit a standard size wheelchair, curtains around the berths for privacy and accessible infrastructure to change platforms.

These are some basic suggestions that should have been implemented 15 years ago. The railways treat people with disability like a piece of luggage. The railways ministry has been talking of making trains disabled friendly but in reality, we are still humiliated every single time because of poor implementation.

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It is time for PM to intervene and clean up para sportsPRADEEP RAJ, Founder, Para Sports Foundation

Both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and India’s Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 mandate the government to take measures to ensure effective participation in sporting activities of people with disabilities.

But the reality was exposed at the Rio Olympics. The Indian Olympic Association, with a budget of Rs 400 crore, sent its largest-ever contingent of 117 people but returned with two medals – a silver and a bronze. In contrast, our Paralympian team, struggling with a minuscule budget of Rs 2 crore, returned with four medals – two golds, a silver and a bronze.

For Paralympic sports, where the spend is a minuscule 0.5 per cent of the sports budget of the IOA, infrastructure and training is sub minimal. Most athletes train on their own with an abysmal lack of accessible infrastructure and facilities.  The biggest problem plaguing para sports is corruption. The International Paralympic Committee and the sports ministry suspended the Paralympic Committee of India three times in the last seven years.

Federations are managed by people without disabilities and run as their personal fiefdoms. The nexus between sports federations and politicians is well-known. ‘Nothing about us without us’ — the anthem of the disability sector must expand to the sports arena as well. Things will change only when disabled athletes and sportspeople are given majority representation in all federations. It is time for the Prime Minister to intervene and clean up para sports.

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In the absence of state support services, parent groups have formed NGOs — SHANTI AULUCK, Founder, Muskaan

People with cognitive and other developmental disabilities constitute one of the most marginalised and neglected sections of our society. There are so many myths and distorted notions in our society surrounding this condition. The dominant assumption of their incapacity has resulted in a lack of services and growth opportunities forcing them to live a life of neglect within their own families.

The social stigma, absence of required education, and training results in extremely poor quality of life.

The National Trust Act was crafted in 1999 by the government but a comprehensive policy is missing. The few services that are available have been created by NGOs formed by parents and that hardly covers 1 per cent of the population. There is no formal family support service that can guide parents in understanding their child and facilitating the child’s development.

NGOs/parents organisations have created successful training and rehabilitation models but they desperately need scaling up and it can happen only with government support. There is a dearth of professionals in the field as compared to its potential demand. One can see a great deal of employment opportunities in this sector if proper policies are formulated.

There is a need to evolve inclusive education models that focuses on the learning needs of people with cognitive disabilities. Self-employment and assisted work centres need to be supported by the government. People with cognitive disabilities fail to utilise schemes of NHFDC’s disabilities credit because they need support from others to carry on their work.

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We have not created an inclusive society for our people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — MUKESH JAIN, CEO, National Trust

The vision of the government’s National Trust, which works for the physical, economic and socio-cultural empowerment of persons with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities, is a world where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families are valued and can participate equally in all socio-cultural activities of the society. Our vision is to create a society where persons with intellectual disabilities can live with dignity, a productive and fruitful life.

The Trust has a network of more than 400 registered organisations and is delivering a range of services like Early Childhood Intervention, Day Care facilities, Skill Development, Scholarships, Medical Insurance and so on.

But we as a society have not been able to create a really inclusive society for our children and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In fact, the services and support models of NGOs and government organisations are most often based on the protectionist institutions and delivery systems which continue to segregate and isolate people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. When a community fails to build inclusive systems and support structures, a vast majority of people with intellectual disabilities are forced to continue depending on their families for lifelong support.

Our investment in ‘Social Capital’ has to increase to create inclusive and stronger communities. We understand it will be a long process but we need to make the notion of inclusion embedded in the thought processes of policy makers, educationists, corporates, parents and other important stakeholders.

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Lead graphic by Arun George, Text by Nipun Malhotra

2 Comments

  1. In the entire Act we miss to find support to people with severe and profund intellectual and developmental disabilities. We all can see changes in the society acceptance towards Employment but what about education. So there is a limited population who can reach for employment. Again only people with cognitive capacities have been the focus..
    We need a strong system to support people with severe and profund disabilities and their families to support their medical, care and life long support.

    Like

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