Make disabled live with dignity

As regards the physically-challenged,  governments allocate funds and think their responsibility is over.

A strange incident took place in the United States of America in 1986. Hundreds of disabled persons brought their canes, walkers, push chairs, wheel chairs, power chairs and various other devices that disabled persons use, to assemble in front of the Capitol building in Washington where their law makers would assemble shortly.

While they chorused “Vote for the Disability Act now,” a victim of cerebral palsy dragged herself up the steep stairway of the Capitol with her bare hands and arms crying “If it takes me all night to climb these 100 steps, I will do it…” 

The American Disabilities Bill was introduced in the House which the startled senators passed unanimously. Even if it took another two years to translate it into an Act, that single united effort by the activists paid off rich dividends.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 heralded a law comparable only to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbids discrimination based on race, religion, sex or ethnicity. The present Act required civil authorities and employers to provide reasonable accommodation and accessibility to disabled persons in all public spaces.

If the “Capitol Crawl” became a powerful symbol of pressurising the government to act, it should be the model in countries like India where mere appeals and entreaties by the disabled members of society fail to wake up governments to their handicapped state. 

The last census reveals that more than 21 million persons suffer from some kind of disability or the other in the country. It may be visual or lack of mobility; it may be hearing loss or dementia; it may be age related or the result of injuries.

The cause does not matter. The fact remains that more than 2 per cent of our population is handicapped and unable to function normally. Does this mean that this percentage (however small it may seem in the larger context) should be deprived of the normal activities enjoyed by the rest of the population? 

Does it not amount to discrimination if they are left out of the mainstream because of a handicap? Even voting for a new government becomes a nightmare to these citizens when polling booths or elec-tion centres become unfriendly to them.

Progressive countries like America have discovered that disabled citizens become a burden on their economy. They have to be enabled to lead more useful lives for pragmatic reasons, if not on humanitarian grounds. It is high time that India revised its thinking on these issues. We too have a similar Act which “ensures equal opportunity and full participation” to its disabled citizens by imposing obligations on governments to survey, investigate and research their status.

This may sound grand on paper. But, how is the Act implemented? Like many other laws, it fails miserably in execution. Both the Central and state governments allocate funds and think that their responsibility ends there. It is easy to dole out money from the exchequer. But, unless this is followed by ensuring that disabled citizens need to be facilitated to become useful citizens, their problem is not solved.

Access to public places

Such facilitation comes from providing easy access to all public places. These include offices, recreation centres, banks, post offices, hospitals and schools/ colleges where every kind of handicapped person must be able to reach easily and independently. For that matter, even roads and pavements must be within their reach.

Ramps should be provided to enable wheel chairs to climb onto the buildings. Trains and buses should be easy to climb. When cities expand and buildings proliferate, the architecture needs planning to make them all disabled-friendly. This does not require great funding so much as a little imagination and concern for those who are not as able.

A city like Bengaluru that boasts of being the Silicon Valley of India is a good example of bureaucratic indifference to the needs of the disabled. Multi-storied buildings with fancy trappings adorn this city. How many of them provide facilities for the disabled? Shopping malls and multiplex theatres have mushroomed. Do they welcome the handicapped?

Even glittering clubs in colonial buildings – whose membership consists mostly of senior citizens – have not cared to provide them basic facilities like specially designed toilets and easy access for wheelchairs. 

So, the disabled members of an expanding city can only watch the world whizzing past while they struggle to cross a street, climb a pavement or enter a building. They do not want sympathy or tears. They only need proper infrastructure so they can function without depending on others.

If the authorities are blind and deaf to their needs, we too need another “capitol crawl” to open their eyes to see them. Our legislators and parliamentarians need not wait for such a rebellion. With an aging population, they should realise that the number of disabled persons will also rise. The least they can do for them is to enable them to live with dignity.

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