India Has a Long Road Ahead to Combat Challenges Faced by Persons With Disabilities

There needs to be a shift from a charity-based approach to a rights-based approach.

World Bank data on the total number of disabled in India suggests the number to be between 40 to 80 million. Credit: Reuters

December 3 is a significant day for millions of persons with disabilities across the globe. It has been marked as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations since 1992. It has been more than 25 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Resolution 47/3, to mark this day.

As per the United Nations, “the aim behind the annual observance of this day is to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development; and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”

Disability in India

Today, there are millions of people living with one or multiple disabilities. In India, the population with disabilities is around 26.8 million, constituting 2.21% of India’s total population, if one goes by the 2011 population census data. Disability rights activists and academicians working on disability issues, however, say that these numbers in the census are a very small percentage of the actual numbers. World Bank data on the total number of persons with disabilities in India suggests the number is between 40 and 80 million.

Whatever the difference between official figures and figures estimated by global institutions, what is clear is that persons with disabilities constitute a significant part of the Indian population. Their numbers are more than the total population of many countries in the world, and India has one of the highest numbers of people with disabilities globally.

Despite constituting such a significant proportion of the total population, persons with disabilities live a very challenging life. Their ‘disability’ is often seen as their ‘inability’ by many and people in general have preconceived notions about their capabilities. There have been many cases where employers have denied a job to a candidate with a disability, citing the usual ‘not found suitable’.

The main problem lies in the psyche of a significant mass which considers persons with disabilities a liability, and this leads to discrimination and harassment against them and their isolation from the mainstream.

While writing the foreword to the World Report on Disability 2011, professor Stephen Hawking stated:

Disability need not be an obstacle to success. We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities. Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment, and never get the chance to shine.

Ideally, these words should be put into action by governments all over the world, and some progressive countries have taken action to make life easier for their citizens with disabilities. India still lags behind in a big way when it comes to removing infrastructural, institutional and attitudinal barriers for the persons with disabilities. Even now, most buildings in India are not disability-friendly, despite the government of India, under the Accessible India Campaign, instructing all ministries to make their buildings accessible to persons with disabilities.

Also read: When ‘Looking Disabled’ Is an Option, and When It’s Not

It is a welcome step but it will take a lot of time for a culture to be developed in India, where the needs of the population with disabilities are kept in mind while building any infrastructure. Historically, people with disabilities as a community have been targeted and discriminated against across the world. In fact, if one looks carefully, the population with disabilities constitutes the world’s largest ‘unrecognised minority’ group.

Who is a person with disability?

The most important element in the discourse on disability is to assess who is a person with disability. Disability is not a homogeneous concept, as it varies from person to person. Seen through a microscopic lens, one person will always be more or less disabled than the other, in terms of their relative physical capabilities.

The Social Statistics Division under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, government of India, came up with a report titled Disabled Persons in India: A statistical profile 2016. While defining disability, the report states:

From the conceptual point of view, there is no universal definition of what constitutes a disability or of who should be considered as having a disability. Moreover, there is no one static condition of disability. A disability is a result of the interaction between a person with a health condition and a particular environmental context.

This report reveals that as per 2011 population census, 20% of persons with disabilities in India have a disability in movement, 19% have a disability in seeing, 19% have a disability in hearing and 8% have multiple disabilities. The report also highlights that the number of persons with disabilities is highest in the age group 10-19 years (46.2 lakh people).

The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines disability differently. It says:

Disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The World Report on Disability 2011 sums up the various definitions of disability by stating that “Disability is complex, dynamic, multidimensional, and contested”.

Why is there such a large population of persons with disabilities?

As one looks at the staggering number of people with disabilities in India, the first question that comes to mind is why are the numbers so high? And can they be reduced?

Despite constituting such a significant proportion of the total population, persons with disabilities live a very challenging life. Credit: Reuters

Disability is generally classified into two types. One is when a person is born with a disability while the other is when a person acquires a disability during his/her life. In the first case, the reason is often the lack of good and accessible medical facilities, resulting in various medical complications for both the pregnant mother and the unborn child, often leading to a disability for the child.

Another reason is the lack of care given to pregnant mothers during pregnancy. Data on disability points to a correlation between ‘disability’ and ‘poverty’. A large number of people with disabilities are born in to poor households. This is not just a mere coincidence. This is due to the fact that pregnant mothers have to work until the very late months of their pregnancy under very harsh conditions to make ends meet.

This lack of care due to systemic fallacies leads to medical complications during pregnancy leading to the birth of children with disabilities in many cases. The population census data 2011 also points out similar trends when it says that 69% of the total population of persons with disabilities in India resided in rural areas. This again not a coincidence – it is primarily because of lack of awareness, lack of care provided to pregnant women and lack of good and accessible medical facilities that the number of persons with disabilities in rural areas is more than double the number in urban areas.

So, a large percentage of the population with disabilities can be reduced if two out of three listed causes for child births with disabilities can be eliminated. The first being lack of awareness and care to pregnant mothers and second, the lack of good and accessible medical facilities across the rural heartland. For eliminating both these barriers, the state governments need to invest heavily in their health sector as health comes under the ‘state subject’ in our constitution.

It is the third listed cause that is the real challenge for any government – the fight against poverty. It is poverty that forces a poor pregnant woman to work in the late stages of her pregnancy. Poverty provides a ripe ground for the birth of persons with disabilities – both during and after.

The other type of disability, as discussed above, is acquired disability. This could happen due to various reasons including accidents, disasters, wars, violence and other factors. All these are “controllable” (except natural disasters). Every year thousands of people acquire permanent disability in road accidents; and the individual’s – as well as the nation’s – physical potential gets reduced.

The way ahead

The first thing to be done is to move away from the ‘charity-based approach’ to the ‘rights-based approach’. A significant proportion of people see a person with disabilities as an object of ‘sympathy’ and ‘pity’ thereby leading to their ‘othering’ and their treatment as a third-class citizen in the country.

This is not just a metaphorical statement. When was the last time India had a celebrity with disabilities or a person with disabilities was recognised popularly?

This is because of systemic attitudinal apathy and discrimination against persons with disabilities as many able-bodied people are just not ready to see a person with disabilities as an ‘equal member’ of society.

The identity of such a person is therefore often left to just being a person with disabilities in the eyes of the rest. In recent years though, the discourse of disability has certainly gained momentum. In the public sphere, movies and TV news channels have highlighted issues of disability. Actors have played the roles of people with disabilities in films and news channels have had shows on disability.

Also read: What India Needs to Learn About Disability Rights

But does anyone remember a movie or an advertisement where the lead actor was a person with disabilities or a news channel anchor with disabilities? Again, this is a tough and uncomfortable question to answer. Only when we, as a society, have positive answers to these questions, will the narrative on disability change for good. Merely using the word ‘divyang’ or ‘differently-abled’ won’t change the psyche of the masses towards persons with disabilities.

Rights to Persons With Disabilities Act, 2016

It has been almost a year since the government of India came up with this landmark act on disability which increased the number of disabilities from seven to 21. This act which replaced the earlier Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 has also increased the quota of reservation for persons with disabilities from 3% to 4% in government jobs and 3% to 5% in higher education institutions.

All this looks good on paper. A lot of posts, especially in group A and group B services in the government, continue to lie vacant. And it is the same in higher education institutions. In both cases, the typical answer is given by authorities is that they couldn’t find any ‘suitable candidate’. This answer is a face-saving attempt by the authorities, and could be right in only two instances.

One, if the Indian education system is proving itself incapable of producing candidates with disabilities who possess essential educational qualifications to sit for an exam for a particular post in a government job or higher education. Secondly, if due to systemic discrimination, the employers are just not interested in recruiting a person with disabilities.

Both cases are shameful, if true. Since the inception of Rights to Persons With Disabilities Act, 2016, there have been many instances of faulty implementation of disability reservation. The new act can only be successful if there is a genuine ‘intent’ to recruit persons with disabilities.

To sum up, International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, 2017 should not be just another day where various workshops, talks, seminars and events are organised on the issue of disability. The idea should be to reflect on where we have been going wrong as a society with respect to citizens with disabilities and how these wrongs can be undone.