Every morning Ramesh a twenty-one year old young man comes on his rickshaw dressed in an impeccably ironed shirt and matching trousers, throwing his hands on the pedal furiously and cursing God for giving him deformed limbs. He owns a small shop in a society complex. He gets down from his rickshaw and crawls on all four limbs to climb the stairs. He always comes around six o’clock in the morning so that nobody sees him. He had requested the RWA Secretary for a year to get a wheelchair for him but he forgot to ask for a ramp. So the wheelchair stands in a corner of the society complex and serves as a make shift toy for the kids. Initially he used to feel embarrassed but now he is quite used to either crawling or being carried around due to absence of infrastructure.

He often says that he is one in a billion, for a billion people around the globe from some form of disability. His soft chuckle at the end almost masks his pain. Our young man is generally reasonable however, sometimes he does lose his cool.

One day Ms. Posh with her six years old son came to buy some dal from his shop.

Her nonchalant son asked her, “Mummy why does brother have diffused fingers?”

Ms. Posh replied, “Son, because he is differently abled. Because he is a special person.”

This irked Ramesh and he could not control himself, he almost shouted,

“No madam I am not special. I am disabled. Please do not play word games. You people crib that your life is a marathon, life is a hurdle race for a disabled person. We face barriers right from education to health to employment. You know, I am still lucky, at least I am employed. All over the world, 75 percent of non-disabled persons are employed as against the 44 percent of disabled persons. This means that more than half of us are financially dependent in addition to the physical dependence on our family and friends. We are less likely to attend schools. This is especially true for poor countries. Even in countries like Bolivia where 98 percent of non-disabled children attend school only 40 percent disabled children go to schools. While in Indonesia, 80 percent non-disabled children attend school while less than 25 percent disabled children attend school. You know half of us do not have money to go for the requisite healthcare, and even if we do, we are thrice more likely to be denied healthcare and four times more likely to be mistreated. The transportation system, it is a luxury for us, the city bus you despise, it is my dream to travel in it without being butt of a joke or feeling like it. We have restricted participation in the society sometimes because of physical barriers like infrastructure and sometimes because of the social stigma. And you know madam, the vulnerable groups like women, elderly and poor are more susceptible to being disabled. The worst part is that disability is very diverse and is not restricted to the wheelchair bound image that the world carries. We are not an insignificant population. Disabled people constitute 15 percent of the world population. My figures seem exaggerated, they are not, they have been borrowed from the World Disability Report. And despite making all these observations, the report says that many of the barriers people with disabilities face are avoidable, and the disadvantages associated with disability can be overcome. So instead of calling us special lend a helping hand.”

Nervous Ms. Posh nods in conformity and tenders the cash. Ramesh catches his breathe and smiles. He feels happy that he gave such a nice monologue, after all monologues are the new trend in Bollywood.

In our day to day life we come across a lot of Rameshs. In fact the number of disabled people is disproportionately high in developing countries where these people live in abject poverty and are often marginalized. They are denied their right to live independently in the community, to move freely, to vote, to participate in sport and cultural activities, to enjoy social protection, to access justice, to choose medical treatment and to enter freely into legal commitments such as buying and selling property.

To counter this United Nations came up with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It offers sufficient standards of protection for the civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights of persons with disabilities on the basis of inclusion, equality and non-discrimination. The convention is open for signature since the latter part of 2006 and India ratified it in October 2007.

Since, then time and again efforts have been made to improve the condition of the disabled people in India. In fact the recent Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 which replaces the archaic 1955 Act is a step in the right direction. The number of conditions which are identified as disability has been increased from 7 to 21. The Act provides for disabled friendly access to all public buildings, hospitals, modes of transport, polling stations, etc. In case a person suffers from 40 percent or more disability, he would be given reservation in jobs and educational institutions. Violation of any provision of the Act may result into a fine of Rs. 10,000 and/or an imprisonment for six months. The centre via the Act casts obligations on states and municipal corporations with regard to disability which is a state subject. Also the Act overrides certain laws which may pose a problem. Keeping aside the legal, procedural and pragmatic reservations against this Act even if we accept this Act then too we need to see whether it has delivered on its promises?

The government launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyaan) in 2015. This programme purports to do an accessibility audit of government buildings. This is imperative for making them friendlier to the disabled persons.  It is shameful that even ramps do not exist in a plethora of government buildings, however, ramps are not sufficient, there are international standards in this regard and they shall be adhered to. USA imposes Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards to ensure accessibility to buildings. Apart from ramps, the list of standard includes specifications and designs for stairs, elevators, windows, doors, entrances, drinking fountains, urinals, bathtubs, shower stalls and handrails, among others.

Recently, the Delhi High Court has condemned the lax behavior of the government and expressed its disapproval at the delays that have been caused. As part of the Accessible India Campaign, the national programme to make public buildings and transport less hostile for the physically challenged, 50% of all of these were to be made fully disabled friendly by July 2018. But more than two years after the launch of the campaign, only 3% of buildings have become accessible, according to the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD). The Centre’s target of making at least 25% of public transport disabled-friendly has also not been met. Unlike the Metro rail, which has accessibility features built in, our other trains are infamously inaccessible. Census 2011 data reveals that of the 13.4 million people with disabilities in India in the employable age group of 15-59 years, 9.9 million were non-workers or marginal workers. Not only are we forcing millions of India’s unemployed with disabilities to be dependent on social security or their families and caregivers, the hostile environment and public transport also robs them of the dignity of carrying out tasks that everybody else takes for granted.

Article 21 gives the right to live a life of dignity and not restricts itself to mere animal existence. It is high time the government reacts instead of giving only lip service their demands.

“People with disabilities are vulnerable because of the many barriers they face: attitudinal, physical, and financial. Addressing these barriers is within our reach…..But most important, addressing these barriers will unlock the potential of so many people with so much to contribute to the world.”

–          Stephan Hawkings

Author: Shivangi Chandra (Fourth Year Learner, Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA)

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