by Javed Abidi
National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled, India
All of us are aware of the fact that people with disability form a very sizeable population in this country. Conservative estimates suggest that we are 5% to 6% of the population... even going by the[se] conservative estimates, it can be said with some amount of confidence that we are about 60-70 million people in this country... Yet this population has been so badly ignored. It is pathetic, it is disgusting, there is just no excuses to offer and it includes not just the Government of India, not just the policy or decision makers but us also - the organisations working in the disability sector and the people with disabilities.
How is it that with 70 million citizens, disability is not a national issue, it is not on the front pages of any newspaper? How is it that the politicians of the country, the decision-makers, whether it is the government or the bureaucrats or the media take us so much for granted? We are a minority, but we are an invisible minority that is neither seen, nor heard - a minority without a voice. Therefore, in a country of vote bank politics, it is very easy to ignore us, very easy to just get away with whatever the decision-makers want to get away with.
Until 1995 we did not even have any kind of legal protection. There was no law in this country on disability and it was a matter of shame because much smaller countries like Hong Kong, Philippines and, our neighbour Sri Lanka had laws - good, bad, ugly, but there was legal protection for people with disabilities. Finally in December 1995 when the Parliament passed the law and in February 1996 when it was notified and enacted, it has taken us more than two and a half years to even put the systems in place. If it takes us that long just to put systems in place, then what expectations can we ever have of something substantial, something of consequence to happen...
In India it is estimated that there are about 3000 to 4000 organisations working in the disability sector. If you see individual people with disabilities, you may feel good that so and so in spite of her disability has been able to progress. But that is not the issue, the issue is as to what is the total picture. The total picture is that in spite of all the schools and facilities existing in the entire country, less than one percent of children with disabilities are getting education. How many more such special schools, NGOs and facilities are going to come up? I am not saying these facilities are not necessary or they are not important. They are very important and very necessary and we need to have more of them. But then at the same time is that the route to solve the problem?
If we look at the issue of employment, the statistics are horrific. The Government of India has set up 23 special employment exchanges in the country, 55 special cells in the regular employment exchanges, 17 vocational training centres across the country. A tremendous infrastructure has been built up. [Thousands] of rupees must have gone into it, but what is the accountability? What is the cost benefit ratio? How many people have and are benefiting out of these infrastructures? We have five national institutes and now a sixth one is going to come up. The first Special Employment Exchange was set up in 1959 in Mumbai and in the last 40 years we have been able to place only less than 100,000 people in regular jobs. In 40 years that is what we have achieved and before anyone starts feeling happy about it, please remember Government of India's own statistics - National Sample Survey of 1991 says that there are seven million employable disabled people in this country waiting for jobs. Out of these, only one 100,000 in 40 years have got jobs. So which direction are we moving in?
My question to you as people with disability, as parents, professionals, government officials, people from the media is - are we content? Are we happy with just this one little success story? Are we happy, if slightly harshly put, setting up our little shops and running them well? Is that the objective? Or are we concerned about the larger issue at hand? Is service delivery the answer to our problem? How many people are going to get help in that way? We have not even touched the tip of the iceberg in the last 40-50 years that we have been working. We will continue to get increasingly disappointed and frustrated unless we make our presence felt, unless we unite, have a common platform and we have a voice and we learn to exert ourselves. My other worry about service delivery is it is too dependent on government support and funding. Even if you are not getting money from them there is this fear which to my mind is wrong, but nevertheless, there-is a fear that if we speak out, the government is going to harm us, our licence will get cancelled, recognition will not be given to us... How dare they cancel your licence, or stop your funding ... if you deserve? Our biggest problem in this country is that we do not have faith in ourselves.
It is time now for all of us to collectively think about these issues, have a collective voice and that is where I would like to sound a note of caution. For many years we have been talking of awareness and somehow we have assumed that we are the perfect people who understand disability, it is society or the government, bureaucrats, media which is insensitive and unaware, it is always 'they' who are at fault. The point I am trying to make is that how aware are we of our own concerns and difficulties - when I say 'our' I mean the composite picture of disability. People who are working for the spastics how aware are they of the problems of the blind? Those working for the blind how aware are they of the problems of the mentally handicapped or people with orthopaedic difficulties?
Why are we so divided, why are we so much into our own that we cannot think beyond a certain point of view? That is where things have gone wrong. What has happened is that the blind people went to Indian Airlines and got 50% concession in air travel, the rest of us goofed up. On the other hand, somebody must have gone to the Ministry for Petroleum, so it started a scheme under which seven and a half per cent reservation is given to people with physical disabilities. The blind people have been raising this issue with them and asking for petrol pumps and gas agencies and the reply is that you cannot deal with a petrol pump or gas because you are blind and may cause accidents. This has been the logic for the last several years. In the process people with mental retardation and their families have got totally left out.
So how is this happening? Political participation to my mind is very important and when I say this, I am not advocating political parties in that sense. I am talking of a larger issue, we have to be more sociopolitically aware. To me disability was never a welfare issue, a charity issue. It was and is a social issue, a socio-economic issue, a development issue. This country cannot talk of development and progress and moving into the 21st century leaving 6% of its population behind. All of us together, whether we are disabled, parents or professionals, government officials or the media, if we are truly concerned about our great country, then we have to think a little harder, join hands and find ways to solve this very huge and serious problem.
This article appeared in Disability Awareness in Action Newsletter no. 74, July 1999
Javed Abidi's original article, from which these extracts were taken, were originally published in DeepShitha, the journal of the Spastics Society of Eastern India, in December 1998.