Debating Disability

On June 16 and 17, 71 civil society organizations assembled in Guwahati, Assam to discuss the status and challenges facing the disability sector in the north-eastern region of India, besides also developing a road map for the next ten years. The Thumb Print, the media partner in the programme, gives a bird’s eye view


“The only friends I have are those I used to hang around with before an accident put me on a wheelchair. Now no one wants to make friends with a ‘wheelchair man’.” — Nicky Chhakchhuak, Disc Jockey, Aizawl, Mizoram.


Disability suffers from widespread stigma and quite obviously rests on the periphery of the collective consciousness. Its link to poverty is stark and persons with disabilities are, because of a disabling environment and poor awareness, often an invisible population.


The challenges for persons with disabilities in the Northeast of India are further compounded by the backwardness of the region — economic and infrastructural, harsh terrain, disaster proneness and continued insurgency. All have culminated in a scenario of acute deprivation and poverty which has worked to continually exclude disabled persons from society.


It is in this backdrop that a symposium was organised on 16 and 17 June by Shishu Sarothi, one of the pioneering organizations in the disability sector in the Northeast — to discuss specific concerns and issues in the region vis-a-vis the sector. Mukul Wasnik, Union Social Justice and Empowerment Minister and Minister for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER), Paban Singh Ghatowar, were present at the symposium to understand the status of a marginalized sector in a marginalized region. Akon Bora, Assam Minister for Social Welfare & Jail, and Poonam Natarajan, Chairperson of National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disability, a statutory body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, also participated in the symposium.


Papers, case studies, and tales of deprivation dominated the first day of the meeting, with representative of 71 civil society organizations, pithily putting across stories from the ground – in aspects relating to health and social security, education, employment and livelihood, and accessibility of persons with disabilities. What stood out severely during the discussions was the overall apathy towards persons with disabilities that has perpetrated into a vicious cycle. Nicky’s story tells it all: “I often visit the Social Welfare Department in Aizawl, the government department to which we are umbilically tied, at times for myself, at others with others like me. And each time I am disappointed at the ignorance of the officials – of the law and my rights. It is all so unfortunate. “


“No pity. No charity. Rights are rightfully mine.” – Arman Ali, Executive Director, Shishu Sarothi, Guwahati, Assam, national awardee, IBN7 Super Idol and a person with locomotor disability


Even almost five years after India’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, persons with disabilities continue to be vulnerable targets of conspicuous and flagrant human rights violations. Not only has there been an inordinate delay in bringing about a new law in conformity with the Convention, there is also indifference in securing the rights of persons with disabilities within the limited scope of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 and other relevant laws in force in the country.


Take for instance the right to education (RTE). Albeit the government publicity machinery is hard at work in ensuring awareness about primary education for all, including children with disabilities, the ground implementation of the RTE Act in respect of children with disability in the north eastern region is poor. During deliberations at the symposium several instances were cited of violation of the right of children with disability to be included in regular schools; many have been outrightly rejected by authorities concerned on irrational grounds. No doubt the challenge is sometimes genuine, as schools struggle to find special educators and learning material in appropriate formats. For instance, according to Census 2001 and the Rehabilitation Council of India’s database as on October, 2010, the number of professionals /personnel required to provide services to persons with disabilities in the north-eastern region is approximately 75,000 in contrast to the existing availability of only 1518 personnel. However, as Arman Ali puts it, “From the right to inclusive education will flow other rights. How can a school reject admission to a blind boy on the plea that there is no one to teach him, as has happened in Sipajhar in Darrang district of Assam? Authorities need to be more proactive.”


Interlinked closely to this right and also the right to employment is the right to accessibility. Unless the physical environment is barrier-free, persons with disabilities will continue to remain the missing population, invisible and unattended. In the Northeast, which is stymied at the outset by inaccessible topography, the challenge of a barrier-free environment is enormous. The Disability Law Unit – North East (DLU-NE) in an enlightening presentation during the symposium focused on the inaccessibility of some of the prominent public buildings in Guwahati, the premier city of the Northeast; the general post office, the deputy commissioner’s office, the railway station, the Nehru park, the inter-state bus terminus, and even new malls for example do not feature the bare minimum requirements of accessibility.


“There is a lack of initiative or reluctance in seeking information and guidance in policy making in the field of disability or even among implementation agencies in the Northeast” — Padmashree Bertha Dkhar, Principal, Jyoti Sroat School for the Blind, Shillong, Meghalaya, and a person with visual impairment


The symposium was conceived not as a mere critique but also to formulate a road map for the sector in the region, bearing in mind the challenges unique to it. At the end of the first day, after hearing out status reports and case studies from the ground in all the seven states of the Northeast, a brainstorming session was initiated and a recapitulation document prepared for the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Shri Mukul Wasnik. The document was exhaustive and among the many recommendations made was a simpler certification system, a separate committee on disability issues for the Northeast, state policies on disability, accessibility in terms of physical environment as well as information and communication systems.


Wasnik was forthcoming and urged state governments to hold special camps for issuing disability certificates which hold the key for disabled people to access welfare schemes. Promising greater focus to the concerns of the sector in the region the minister also stressed on ensuring greater awareness regarding disability.


In order to take forward the charted out map, the symposium initiated the formation of a core group which would work on specific concerns of the respective states and thereafter form a consortium to take up issues in the sector with the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, Government of India.


“Seeing beyond, looking further, and dreaming of equal opportunities and equal participation. ” – Dr P Ngully, Chairman, Kripa Foundation, Kohima, Nagaland