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Cover Story

No country for disabled people

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Most schools in the country, including the 3, 000-odd special schools, have no accessibility features such as ramps or disabled-friendly toilets

Of the conservatively estimated 70 million people with disabilities (PWD) in India, almost 95 per cent have no access to education or employment opportunities, says a survey done by the Commonwealth Foundation along with other NGOs. That's the equivalent of denying education or employment to the entire population of the UK or France.

A World Bank report released last year stated that over 52 per cent of the disabled - over 36 million - are illiterate. That's like keeping the entire population of Canada illiterate.

So who pays for the dependent, uneducated and unemployed PWD? At an unrealistic estimate of just Rs 1, 000 spent per disabled person per month on half the PWD population, it works out to a whopping Rs 3, 500 crore every month. And this is paid by society, by the families of PWD, and not by the government, whose entire annual budget for the disabled would not exceed Rs 1, 000 crore, if that. The annual budget of the nodal ministry for the disabled - in this case the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) - is just about Rs 400 crore.

Despite a 1995 legislation that secures the rights of the disabled, India is accused of having a welfare-based approach rather than a rights-based approach to the whole problem. The latter would have ensured that the disabled had the right to education and access as citizens of the nation, and that these rights were not offered as charity.

Every discussion on disability talks of empowering PWD to make them participating, contributing members of the society. But empowerment seems a distant dream without employment, which cannot happen without education. And both employment and education cannot happen without accessibility, a casualty in a country where most public spaces including schools, colleges and universities are inaccessible to children with disability (CWD).

Despite the 15-year-old legislation and several policy initiatives, by the HRD ministry's own admission less than 1. 8 per cent of CWD are in schools. Well over a third of all children who are not in schools are disabled.

A limited survey of 89 schools by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) showed that a mere 0. 5 per cent of the total number of students were those with some disability. A similar survey in 96 colleges also came up with the same percentage. Of the 322 universities surveyed, 118 responded: the number of PWD in the total student population was just 0. 1 per cent.

One of the most common reasons for CWD remaining unschooled is the lack of access. A majority of schools in the country, including the 3, 000-odd special schools, have no accessibility features such as ramps or disabled-friendly toilets. Even a top institution like Delhi University is not accessible to students with disabilities. DU got down to doing access audits on all its colleges only after a public interest litigation was filed in a court. The access audit showed that not a single institution was fully accessible.

A recent report on accessibility prepared by Samarthyam, the research wing of the National Centre for Accessible Environments, found that Shastri Bhavan, which houses several Union ministries, is inaccessible to the disabled. It also happens to house the MSJE, the nodal ministry for PWDs.

Not only educational institutions but most public spaces too are inaccessible to the disabled: shopping malls, parks, roads and pavements. While developed countries are still working on improving accessibility in all spheres of life, some basic features such as making all places wheelchair accessible, tactile paving for the visually impaired, designated parking spaces at shopping centers and low- floor buses have become common enough. However, these are hardly visible anywhere in India. Where they are available, the facilities are flawed: the ramps are built too steep for anyone to use and the low-floor buses do not have the standard kerb height.

There are building bye-laws in about 16 states that make accessibility a criteria for obtaining approval. "But it is not clear what design standards or design detailing constitute accessibility. Accessibility is not even part of the curriculum in any of the architecture schools in the country. Then how can you expect buildings designed by these architects to be accessible?" asks Shivani Gupta, director, AccessAbility. The urban development ministry recently constituted a committee to draw up universal design standards that would be applicable to the whole country. It's anyone's guess when the assignment will be completed.

The law on employment for PWD - it provides for 3 per cent reservation in "identified posts" in the government - remains ineffective. Many states have not even completed the process of identifying these posts in their services. The central government, when it did, identified just 10. 2 per cent of all posts. Government figures reveal that just 4. 36 per cent of the identified posts have been filled.

The NCPEDP's survey on the employment of PWD among the top 100 companies in India showed up some abysmal figures: 0. 54 per cent in public sector companies, 0. 28 per cent in the private sector and a shocking 0. 05 per cent in the multinationals. This is not even close to the 5 per cent employment in the private sector envisaged by the law or the 3 per cent promised by Indira Gandhi way back in 1977.

In the 2007 budget, the then finance minister P Chidambaram claimed that one lakh PWD would find employment within a year through an incentive scheme. However, in October 2008, he admitted the scheme had bombed as "not a single employer had applied for the scheme". In place of the promised one lakh, a mere 465 became the beneficiaries of the incentive scheme in the financial year 2009-10. "The scheme failed because the incentive was not attractive enough. The government knows how to design an effective incentive scheme when it wants to. Several successful incentive schemes exist such as tax free zones, tax holidays and land at concessional rates, " says Javed Abidi of NCPEDP.

Abidi and many disability sector activists feel that employment cannot be quota-based or ensured as corporate social responsibility. "It has to be through equal opportunity legislation which would impose hefty fines on companies for discriminating against PWD, " says Abidi. Multinationals who disregard PWD employment laws here would not dare do so elsewhere, in Europe or the US, for example, where such laws exist and are enforced strongly.

Here is how serious the government is about implementing the PWD law: the post of the Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disability (CCPD) who is supposed to address the grievances of PWD across the country, including complaints against the MSJE and other ministries, has been lying vacant for over a year. It is now just an additional charge held by an additional secretary in the MSJE. Hardly a surprise then that the PWD in India remain cheated of their fundamental rights.

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