Why the community of people with disabilities is not considered as a vote bank?

Public opinion polls now play an important role in politics. Not only do these polls predict who’s going to get how many seats in the elections, these also talk about caste considerations, about inclinations of female voters, about the mood of youngsters, about urban voters, rural voters, voters from different states, voters from different age-groups etc. But never in the history of Indian politics or in the data presented by an opinion poll has one seen the presence of disabled people, their inclinations, their issues, their choices as voters.

The community of people with disabilities is not considered as a vote bank. No caste or creed discusses the challenges and needs of people with disabilities, but why? Maybe it’s an awkward topic, or perhaps they are not a strong vote bank to influence electoral outcomes. At best, people with disabilities are seen as ‘objects of charity’. Some of the issues which have historically prevented people with disabilities to play an integral part in the politics of the country are:

  • People with disabilities are usually seen as liabilities, never as  assets.
  • Representation of the disabled community on any level is poor or next to zero.
  • The only disabled Member of Parliament ever was Jaipal Reddy, who had polio.
  • Being disabled has been a ground for disqualification to contest in elections on several occasions.
  • Families struggle for years to obtain a disability certificate for a member. Such a process should not take more than a week.
  • No political party ever selects a disabled person as an electoral candidate,. Even if a few brave souls decide to change that, there is little support.

It has to be acknowledged that there are around 40-80 million people with disabilities in the country as per a World Bank report. Add to these individuals, the caretakers who because of their proximity to people with disabilities have an understanding of disability. The people with disabilities and their families and their caretakers compose a big part of the total population. It’s time to change the narrative, so that our actions have room for change. Social stigma and discrimination are the core reasons for our failure. The blatant example of this discrimination is the fact that we have no exclusive representatives for the people with disabilities in the Parliament. We can protest all we want on the streets, but it won’t be as effective as protesting inside the House of Parliament.

Political change has to start along with social change for real change to occur in society.

How to change the state of the disabled community in the Politics of India?

  • An ordinance or a bill should be passed in the Parliament, reserving a few seats for the disabled.
  • When a member of the disabled community addresses the House, the whole country will listen and be inspired.
  • A balanced society has room for all, and such precedents can become a ray of hope for us.

Reservation in political seats will empower the disabled community and change the perception of the ignorant populous. If a member of the disabled community becomes an active Member of Parliament, the issues and injustice faced by disabled people will see the light of day. Justice isn’t a single decision but a practice. A single amendment in Parliament can change the course of the future for the disabled community.

Swaraj Bhatia

InAccessibility – A disabling world which aggravates a person’s disability

For PwDs to be active members of the society and lead a fulfilling life, understanding how they function and participate in the society and integrating them is important. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that people with disabilities have a right to fully participate in society, however, it is ultimately the way devices, services and built environments are structured which determine the extent to which PwDs can participate and engage effectively in their surroundings.

Usually understood as the ‘ability to access’, accessibility requires the implementation of minimum standards and guidelines so that PwDs can access, physical environment and information on an equal basis with others. This is required for inclusion and realization of the rights of PwDs. It is also closely related to Universal Design which emphasizes on creating products, services and built environment which can be conveniently used by everybody, irrespective of whether they are disabled or not.

Accessibility has multiple dimensions, inclusive of but not limited to – built environment, transportation and information and communication technology.

  • Accessible physical environment benefits not just PwDs but rather everybody ranging from children to elderly and this makes it imperative to overcome barriers in all common facilities like steps, elevator, parking, emergency exit, toilet etc. of the built environment.
  • Accessible transportation determines the extent to which PwDs are able to move around independently and also play a vital role in widening / limiting the range of opportunities that a person experiences in all aspects of his life.
  • Digital accessibility focuses on making digital products like websites, mobile applications, tools etc. accessible for everyone and aims to provide all the users access to the same information despite the disabilities that they may have.

Efforts are being made to create accessible environments for PwDs. During the accessibility audits of public buildings in Delhi-NCR, most corporate buildings of DLF in Cyber Hub, Gurgaon, were found to have elevators that were touch-screen operable. This has definitely made the buildings stand out in terms of technological advancements and aesthetics, however, in doing so, the buildings have been rendered inaccessible to the visually impaired individuals who rely on braille for operating elevators. Furthermore, most buildings either did not have designated refuge areas and emergency exits for PwDs or in cases where it was present, the way was either through steps or through incorrectly built ramps. Most buildings also lacked facilities as basic as accessible washrooms and in cases where they were present, they were either locked up as a store room or converted into a pantry.

Working as an Access Auditor has allowed me to closely experience how the built environment is structured and has helped me to reflect on how disability is a socially constructed idea which is more about the mindset than the body and it is essentially the disabling world that we exist in which aggravates a person’s disability.

 

Ritica Maheshwari

infantilizing

Infantilizing Disability – PwDs may not be able-bodied but they are not children either

The social model of disability advocates that disability is a social construction and emphasizes on how discrimination and stigma around disability is essentially the larger problem rather than disability itself. Our society has a tendency of considering Person with Disabilities as people who are not capable enough, dependent upon others, deserving of pity etc. Furthermore, in a society where everybody should ideally co-exist, PwDs are regarded as not just less than others but less than their own age as well. Infantilization is the practice of treating people who are no longer children as children. Treating PwDs as ‘grown up children’ is largely a mistaken way of thinking and is more common than is ever realized.

The many ways through which we engage in infantilization consciously or sub-consciously include baby talking, addressing the able-bodied caretaker and not the person with disability him/herself, assuming a person to be dependent and taking decisions on their behalf etc. The tendency to infantilize an adult person with disability is very common and while one may not even realize that they are doing it, it has far-reaching consequences for the person who is subjected to this kind of behaviour. Infantilization extends way beyond being merely a socially unacceptable behaviour and is condescending and insulting towards a person with disability. Even if it is well-intended or is done unconsciously, infantilizing of PwDs is nothing less than discrimination. Being treated as significantly younger than one really is not only frustrating but is also a way of dismissing one’s age, maturity and overall existence.

Recognising that PwDs have support needs is one part but using it as a basis to infantilize them is another. Thus, this leads to experiences of people with disabilities being overlooked and talked down to. There is a desperate need to stop associating disability with inability and how living with a disability does not change the status of an adult into that of a child.

Efforts should be made to put an end to the pervasive social devaluation of PwDs. Infantilizing PwDs might not always be an intended action and so it is essential that we educate ourselves rather than being ignorant about it. PwDs may not be able-bodied but they are not children either. They are capable enough to take charge of their own life and if and when they need support, they can obviously ask for it. It is time that we start practicing empathy and supporting PwDs without patronizing them.

Ritica Maheshwari

Stop Hating the Different: The Life of person with Disability in India

Christopher Reeve said – “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

We call them by many politically correct names, “Disabled, Specially abled, differentially abled, and divyang,” but do we ever try to understand their struggle?? The Indian society, in particular, considers disability as a consequence for actions of earlier births and people with disabilities are more likely to be treated like an outcast. We live in a toxic culture where we take everything in our lives for granted, resist change, and hate everything we perceive as different. More than 2.1 % of the Indian population comprises people with visual disabilities, locomotor disabilities, cognitive disability, dwarfism, intellectual disability, mental illness, cerebral palsy, and more. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, and Government schemes if implemented appropriately are enough to improve their standard of living, but what about invoking equality in our society; what about changing the mind-set; we need a cultural shift that empathizes with all.

Where to begin?

Most of the buildings in India are not disabled friendly; as a result, the people with disability are always seen asking for help to enter premises and for stairs. Imagine the effect on their mental health; their helplessness adds to the unfair life they are subjected to. What PWDs need is not our sympathy or pity but our acceptance and empathy. To achieve such a feat in society, we must begin with the children. They need our guidance to understand that although disabled people may seem different than us, they are the same human beings as us; they laugh, cry, and feel everything like us. Tell them to be friends with specially-abled kids in their school, and help them whenever possible. Such teachings can boost the confidence of children with disabilities and empower them to lead happy lives.

Poverty is a sin in this world.

Data suggests that more than 69% of the disabled population resides in the rural areas in India. Disability is either by birth or acquired due to accident, diseases, or unforeseen circumstances. Financially poor and rural households don’t have access to good healthcare or even basic healthcare knowledge for pregnant women. Lack of facilities at home, nutritional food, adequate care, and a positive environment affects pregnant women and the baby negatively. These factors are rooted in poverty, and can be prevented with effort from the society and the government.

What can we do?

A nation cannot flourish without the active vigilance of its citizens. We need to stop reflecting our pain onto others, accept our flaws, and forgive them. That’s how a harmonious society is built. Furthermore, we can do the following for disabled people –
1. Spread knowledge on the Unique Disability ID (https://www.swavlambancard.gov.in/) to enrol them for the benefits of government schemes.
2. Empower specially-abled people by teaching them skills to earn and live a respectable life.
3. Improve the knowledge in rural areas on the healthcare of expecting women through NGOs.
4. Be vigilant against the harassment of disabled people.
5. Make them aware about their legal rights.

Life is tough for us all. Regardless of our circumstances, we forget that the key to happiness is to spread joy and serve humanity irrespective of people’s caste, creed, colour, and even their disabilities.

Swaraj Bhatia

Absence of a disability-inclusive response in times of pandemic

At a time when the entire world is grappling with COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown, persons with disabilities (PwDs) have an altogether different story to narrate. Despite accounting for around 2.2% of India’s population, PwDs have been the most neglected and hence, one of the most severely affected by the pandemic. PwDs are as prone to the virus as the rest of the population, if not more. However, the difficulties experienced by them are further aggravated due to a variety of underlying factors.

Most often, PwDs are highly dependent on others for activities of daily living. In a situation like this, the inability to maintain social distancing only contributes to increasing their vulnerability. The fear of contracting COVID-19 virus has also led to an increase in the unwillingness of the care-givers to extend their services. With restrictions on services, pairing relevant care-givers with PwDs is another challenge that has become evident.

The pre-existence of physical and mental health complications also increases the probability of PwDs to contract the virus. For instance, particularly in the times of COVID-19, the need of a visually impaired person to touch things in order to obtain information from the surroundings is an unsafe practice. Additionally, the sudden imposition of lockdown has not just limited their exposure to the outside world but has essentially hindered their access to a variety of healthcare services and medical treatments that they rely on for everyday functioning, thus aggravating the disability in many cases.

In the context of employment opportunities, the prejudice and stigma against PwDs have exposed them to a greater risk of getting unemployed. In such times of unrest and crisis, sudden unemployment has only translated to PwDs being left to fend for themselves leading to their economic marginalization. It is also worth highlighting how PwDs have been vouching for and consequently being denied work-from-home opportunities since long. However, the pandemic has very successfully proven how the entire world can operate on work-from-home practices and this has essentially been an eye-opener for workplaces to become more inclusive and accommodating of the needs of the disabled.

The pandemic has brought the entire world to operate on technology. Be it academics or corporates, to most people, the pandemic has at least brought a satisfaction that when the entire world crashes down, technology might still keep us moving. However, digital accessibility has hardly been thought about. With restrictions on physical mobility and all minor/major activities being done online, most websites and mobile applications have failed to incorporate the needs of PwDs as they lack a disabled friendly interface. Additionally, most precautionary measures and advisories by the government have also been restricted to audio/written format. The failure to incorporate features like braille, sign language, closed captioning etc. speaks volumes about the extent of exclusion that PwDs are subjected to. This has also raised the question about the validity of making a mobile application like AarogyaSetu mandatory, despite it being digitally inaccessible for PwDs. 

PwDs have always been rendered invisible in our society and this is essentially why India experienced an absence of a disability-inclusive response to the public health crisis. The need of the hour is to collaborate with relevant stakeholders and incorporate the needs of the target population before formulating any guidelines and policies. Inclusion begins with making the decision-making process participatory and hence, considering it as an after-thought would only result in a collapse of the entire system.

 

An exclusive article by DAND

Written by Ritica Maheshwari