World Disability Day: Is it time to question the country’s readiness on disability-friendly policies?

02 Dec,2021

 

 

By Shruti Pushkarna

 

Shruti PushkarnaTwo years ago, on December 3, I wrote my first column with the intent of initiating a dialogue on ‘disability’. Why did I feel the need to do so? Primarily because disability or the needs of the disabled population have never been part of our mainstream agenda. Raising awareness, I thought, would be the first logical step towards reducing the ignorance levels.

 

Second, the conversations on disability in the media focused on romanticised tales of role models, generating sympathy from the audience or worse, making them feel thankful for their able-bodied existence vis-à-vis someone who was paying off his or her karmic debt.

 

I don’t know if my attempts at reinforcing the need to normalise disability, shifting the focus on abilities, and accepting the differences, has altered any mindsets. But if I have been able to make you pause and think even for a moment, I feel accomplished.

 

And on the eve of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), I renew my vow to keep at it. Keep advocating for an ‘inclusive’ world for all. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, and everyone deserves a chance to live independently with dignity. But also, because including 15 per cent of the global population will change the majority’s perspective towards life and situations.

 

If you are wondering ‘how so’, believe you me, that’s been my biggest personal lesson. Disability is a condition that a person is either born with or acquires later in life. It’s a condition that results in limiting the person in some ways. The limitations, however, are a result of barriers in the physical (and virtual) environment as well as behavioural blockades.

 

Learning to respect the differences stems from concentrating on the potential of people without fixating on what doesn’t ‘seem’ possible to us. For this to happen, ‘accessibility’ has to become a priority. Once persons with disabilities start participating and interacting with the mainstream, the walls in our heads will slowly start coming down.

 

Let me break this down a bit. I worked as a television news producer some years ago. If I were to take up that job again, I can easily see a blind person scripting or voicing the show. I can also picture a speech impaired production assistant accompanying the crew on shoots, maintaining logs, holding up cue cards etc. A person with locomotor disability can very well be the go-to guy (or gal) for topical research.

 

This is just one possible scenario emanating from my ‘limited’ understanding. Imagine the possibilities.

 

If we can work on removing the obstacles and introducing solutions that enable persons with disabilities not only to enter or exit a space, but perform all the functions that are essential to that scenario, this column will become redundant.

 

Why? Because first-hand interactions and experiences are the most effective ways to ‘sensitize’.

 

Before you write me off as pedantic, here are some examples which reiterate the gaps in inclusion and speak of our (read society/government/corporates/policy-makers/media) indifference towards the disabled community.

 

1. It’s 2021. And the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 recognizes 21 types of disabilities. But our accessibility definition starts and ends with a wheelchair. So much so, that we force blind, deaf or speech impaired people into a wheelchair despite their ability to use their legs!

2. Even wheelchair access is not implemented fully on the ground. Many places don’t have wheelchairs. If you bring one of your own, good luck pushing it through the narrow doors of rooms, toilets, shops, restaurants etc. And then there’s the ramps. You are sure to exercise your forearms pushing the wheelchair up and down the inconsistent and steep inclines.

3. Where are the statistics on the disabled population? Forget gender, children, state or disability specific data, the latest count we have is from Census 2011 which is far from accurate. If we don’t know how many need access to services and spaces and in which geographies, what is the likelihood of catering to their needs?

4. The United Nations theme for IDPD 2021 is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-Covid-19 world.” After the pandemic, a majority of our social and professional activities have moved online. But digital platforms including websites and mobile applications are not fully accessible to persons with disabilities. December 31stis the deadline for filing income tax returns and the government’s official portal is ridden with virtual barriers. Digital wallets, the new norm of post-demonetisation and socially distanced world, remain inaccessible.

5.The UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Yet we are building parks, cinema halls, shopping plazas and holiday resorts discarding the principles of universal design.

 

Although some media reports and surveys might suggest that we don’t score too badly on the global index, is India really a disabled-friendly country? Can the media step away from tokenism on December 3 and really ask some tough questions on whether our country adheres to the ‘Leave No One Behind’ philosophy?

 

Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist who now works as a programmes and media specialist for the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna

 

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