On 18th March 2010, I attended a presentation on government policies and acts for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) at Little Flower Deaf & Blind School. The presentation was for special educators of government schools teaching in various districts of Tamil Nadu. During this time, the teachers spoke out about their issues regarding the improper execution of these acts.
What happened back then
The devices provided for the children were standardised, not customised, based on needs such as intensity of hearing or vision impairment. Moreover, the devices were not even tested periodically for quality maintenance.
The schools received books through Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, but these were the same as those for non-disabled persons. Moreover, teaching materials needed by special educators, like charts and objects, were also missing.
The Persons With Disability Act (PWD Act) clearly stated that the Government should provide free comprehensive education support materials, uniforms, and books. However, the truth was far from it: teachers funded these materials out of their pockets. The Government allocated INR 500 for materials for one year, but the management mishandled this money. As a result, teachers had to put their resources to use.
These special educators used sign language for kindergarten to fifth-grade students. However, they used lip-reading to teach children complex sentences and technical terms since sign language was challenging to use to communicate in-depth concepts.
Special educators received an extra incentive of INR 60 each month which was a meagre amount. The teachers had a union and submitted multiple petitions to the Government to increase their salary, but it took no radical action.
Though the PWD Act allowed free transportation for children with disabilities from their homes to schools and vice versa, there was no such facility available. Bus passes were not very useful for these kids since their caregivers had to escort them to the bus stands. Also, government buses were crowded, making them inaccessible for children with disabilities. Additionally, parents were unable to escort the children to school every single day. Instead, they had to stay back and work, fending for their family.
The lack of work opportunities for PWDs was perhaps one of the most crucial gaps in the system. The Government had a few vocational rehabilitation institutes to train PWDs in certain occupations. For instance, there were training centres for carpentry, tailoring, electrical work, and more, which fell under the semi-skilled job category. However, this system worked against PWDs.
It assumed that PWDs were capable of unskilled or semi-skilled labour only and set up generic institutes. However, PWDs were fighting for equal rights in all professions. They wanted organisations to employ them based on their talent and make decisions based on their disability. Moreover, they wanted the Government to dispel assumptions about their inefficiencies.
In Government jobs, the management ought to carry forward job vacancies for PWDs until a PWD fills them. However, the organisations gave such vacant seats to non-disabled persons. Moreover, every unemployed PWD got a meagre allowance of INR 400 from the Government.
Infrastructure for PWDs was a highly controversial topic since there was hardly any evidence of buildings and places being inclusive for PWDs. According to the PWD Act, built-in environments (especially Government ones) must not discriminate. However, a considerable number of Government buildings and complexes were discriminatory. I witnessed a few Government schools myself that did not consider the needs of persons with disabilities. Even religious places did not have facilities.
There were no talking signals, ramps, audio announcements for the visually impaired, and signboards for hard-of-hearing persons.
On the other hand, a positive example was the Satyam Theatre in Chennai. Its infrastructure was fully equipped and inclusive for PWDs. It promoted audio descriptions by connecting them to radio FMs on users’ mobiles. Users could tune in to a particular frequency and hear the film’s dialogues.
There was a standard procedure that PWDs had to go through when traveling by air. They had to sign an indemnity form stating that the airline was not responsible for their aid if involved in an accident. The person was solely responsible as they were born disabled.
The national policy statement gave exclusive provisions for PWDs. For example, a PWD had equal rights to access sports & recreation programs. However, the related acts did not mention this information. Furthermore, as per this statement, the Government is supposed to give financial grants to students involved in research and development in disability. However, it did not implement this act in reality.
The problems started right at home regarding stigma and prejudicial attitudes towards PWDS. For example, when parents or other teachers referred to children with disabilities, they did not address them by their name. Instead, the parents referred to them as ‘Enga Umaiyan’ (our mute child).
Educators also faced discriminatory behaviour. Special educators said that they were called Umais, and their schools were called Umai (mute) schools. Some special educators were stigmatised and not allowed to mingle with teachers who taught non-disabled students.
One special educator quoted a particular incident: a girl with disabilities was locked up in her room at home and not allowed to attend her sister’s wedding. She moved to the school hostel after the incident. Although the girl came from a well-educated family, her parents feared that their reputation would get adversely affected by a PWD at home.
The stakeholders discussed several points about adopting a ‘people-first behaviour’ when interacting with PWDs, mostly involving manners and ethics.
For instance, one should not address Persons with disabilities as ‘disabled people’ since they are people with special abilities and are not limited. There is also an unethical prevalence of addressing a person without impairment as ‘normal’ instead of saying ‘non-disabled’.
Similarly, one should refer to a person with a hearing disability as ‘mute’, not ‘dumb’. A participant raised a valid question: some children with speaking disabilities did produce sounds and communicated their needs. In this scenario, would calling them ‘mute’ be appropriate?
In another example, when leading a blind person down the road, it is appropriate to let them hold us instead of us holding them. Holding them may come across as a wrong gesture of patronisation rather than facilitation.
What is Happening Today?
In 2016, India came up with a landmark act: The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. However, even today, persons with disabilities have to face discrimination and hardships.
While the act provides a 3% reservation in Government jobs and educational institutions, most of these buildings remain inaccessible. For example, education centres do not have proper examination seats for PWDs. In addition, vehicles for transport or special parking are rarely available.
As per the 2011 census, the number of persons with disabilities in India is 26.8 million, or 2.2% of the whole population. This number is more than the entire population of Australia. Moreover, the census included only seven questions on disability. The scope expanded to twenty-one questions after the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. In all likelihood, this number will be much higher in the next census (2021).
Education is the bridge that will lessen the gap between knowledge of medical conditions and seeking healthcare at the right time. However, persons with disabilities rarely reach higher secondary education.
According to the Inclusive Education Initiative’s report in 2020, only 9% completed secondary education, whereas 45% of PWDs are illiterate. Plus, only 63% between the ages of 3 and 35 attended regular schools. Accessibility numbers are also lower. For example, 17% of schools have toilets for PWDs, whereas lower than 40% of school buildings have ramps.
Covid-19 only worsened the situation.
The lockdown made it difficult for persons with disabilities to access healthcare, mental health, rehabilitation, and education services. Moreover, assistance for their day-to-day activities was cut off suddenly. There were also reports that parents abandoned their children with disabilities, leaving them to fend for themselves in shelters.
The negative financial impact was even more significant. The lack of mobility across the nation affected the PWDs’ livelihoods adversely. As jobs were affected, persons with disabilities had limited income, which led to increased borrowing for health and medical facilities; this pushed them into a vicious cycle of debt.
The Way Ahead
India is still lagging when it comes to adopting a people-first approach. The perception regarding PWDs needs to shift from providing them with charitable help to making space for equal rights. We should not pity them but empower them. Pity will only push them down and make them feel like unhelpful or unskilled persons.
Systemic apathy is possibly the most significant drawback that persons with disability in India continue to face. More than putting up signs, we need to come to terms with the fact that they are not ‘disabled’ persons but human beings living with ‘disabilities’ that do not limit their talent. Only then can we make a future inclusive of everyone living in this country.