Ever since I was a child, my family had instilled in me a fear of bureaucrats, politicians and anything related to the government. As an accessibility activist, I might have taken on governments on policies, but being the son of a first-generation entrepreneur, it is in my DNA to be respectful yet fearful of anyone who is directly related to the government.
So, when I got a call an early September evening from someone saying, “Hello, I am a student at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration”, I didn’t realise that I was actually talking to a future IAS officer who would go on to run the country.
He had invited me to address the 94th foundation batch of ‘Officer Trainees’ scheduled later in the month and interact with the next generation of bureaucrats. This was a historic moment for the premier training institute for civil servants based in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand. The entire week of training had been themed around ‘disability’.
Sensitising officers to disability
I subsequently learnt that he had partial blindness and wanted me to sensitise officer trainees on the challenges faced by students with disabilities’ in general, and those on wheelchairs in particular.
Three weeks later, when I reached the academy, an officer with hearing loss escorted me — I was elated to learn that the institute was home to members of the disabled community as well. Over the next two days, I interacted with persons with a wide array of disabilities.
It was only in 2012 when Ira Singhal, who has scoliosis, was denied entry into the services due to her “inability to push, pull and lift”. She took the government to court, won the case. However, Ira didn’t just want to open the doors; she wanted to break them down. She took the UPSC exam again in 2015 — and topped it this time.
The case forced the Indian bureaucracy to change, and accept ‘persons with disabilities’ (beyond just the Indian Revenue Service). My two-day stay at the LBSNAA convinced me that the bureaucratic class has embraced this change.
On the day I arrived, the academy had organised a session on ‘Dialogue in the Dark’. Participants were paired up: one person was blindfolded with the other acting as a guide helping the partner walk from one spot to another. This is a beautiful exercise, which is often used in sensitisation workshops that not only allow people to experience blindness, but also give a glimpse into the need for caretakers. I was extremely impressed when the course coordinator N.K. Sudhanshu blindfolded himself and led from the front.
There were cultural performances organised on the disability theme. Uma Tuli, an educationist, social worker, and founder and managing secretary of Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust, delivered a lecture on inclusive education. Officer trainees with disabilities shared their experiences; Amar Jain, a Mumbai-based lawyer who is blind, spoke on how he navigates technology.
The 3A’s for persons with disability
I was impressed by the enthusiasm, curiosity and openness of the officer trainees. They had just cracked the formidable UPSC exams and were only a few months away from tasting real power, but were still keen to learn and educate themselves.
As I took the officer trainees through my life journey, I based my presentation on what I feel are the three biggest challenges facing persons with disabilities: the 3A’s — Attitudes, Accessibility and Affordability. I also played videos showing the difficulties a wheelchair user faces in navigating through Delhi’s public transportation and infrastructure.
I also challenged those who might get to work in the Ministry of Human Resource Development to push for a course on ‘disability education’ in schools just like there are ‘environmental education’ and ‘sex education’ courses.
The best moment
During the tea break, I was asked several questions, ranging from disability etiquettes to laws and policies to the impact of technology on persons with disabilities.
They were also inquisitive to know more about the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, whether it has changed things on the ground, and about the challenges in its implementation.
Many were also keen to know how they could be of more help. However, my favourite moment came when an officer trainee stood up and said, “I hope all IAS officers are now inspired to make their district accessible. I hope all revenue service officers are now inspired to make tax collection mechanisms accessible. I hope those in the railway services are now inspired to make railways accessible. And thus, I hope foreign service officers will be able to tell the world India is accessible”.
I must say, LBSNAA is the best advertisement for what the ‘great Indian bureaucracy’ entails. But it’s a pity that it doesn’t offer guided tours to project the services at their best.
Seeing bright, young minds curious to know how they can change the country definitely changed my perception of India’s new and upcoming civil servants. For that, thank you to the 94th Foundation Class of 2019.
The author, a wheelchair user, is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, WheelsForLife (www.wheelsforlife.in). He can be followed on twitter @nipunmalhotra. Views are personal.