Make the disabled useful to society

Make the disabled useful to society

It is easy to launch a Clean India or an Accessible India but to make them effective takes sincere effort.

When I visited the Loyola University in Chicago, what impressed me beyond the excellent academics was a small facility in every classroom that would go unnoticed by many but which proved a boon to the students.

Occasional chairs had tables attached on the left side to make it possible for left-handed students to work comfortably like the others. A small gesture that spoke of great thinking on the part of the authorities. How many schools in this country show the same consideration for their students? Why, how many public spaces offer the barest conveniences to seniors and the disabled?

Five star hotels, convention centres and marriage halls have all the trappings of luxury without the minimum facility like a side rail for steep stairways or even simple chairs with arms. It shows an utter lack of concern for the elderly and the disabled both of whom are handicapped in multiple ways.

Roads with potholes, pavements that give way, steps without support. Even buses, trains and every other public transport system are geared only for the young, the fit and the able. Shopping complexes and entertainment centres like cinema halls or performing theatres have ignored the needs of one section of society which is growing at an alarming pace – the old and the infirm who are sadly left out of the mainstream of activities.

They simply stand and watch the rest of the world move on while they struggle to board a bus or cross a road or even climb a pavement with difficulty. They too can participate in every other activity if only the infrastructure of their surroundings was friendly. The least that governments can do – both the Centre and the states – is to enable these “weaker” sections of society to live a life of independence and dignity.

The Government of India launched the Accessible India Campaign a year ago. A progressive step, no doubt. But, the focus of the seven “amazing initiatives” was on television. Measures such as modifying set-top boxes to convert text into speech for the visually handicapped or introducing sign languages on Doordarshan to help the hearing impaired viewers are good reforms although they do not benefit millions more who do not possess or watch television, and still need help in other areas of living.

According to official estimates, we have 2.68 crore  people with disabilities living in this country. The Centre’s target of making 4,800 public buildings, 75 railway stations and public transport buses disabled-friendly was a good way to start this campaign. But, unless targets are realised in time and executed with sincerity, such reforms become mere rhetoric.

It is easier to launch Clean India, Digital India or Accessible India in the glare of media coverage. But, to make these programmes feasible and effective takes sincere effort. It also takes stern measures to ensure that all the stake holders respect the rules of the game.
For example, the government’s plan to conduct awareness programmes and workshops “to sensitise builders of public buildings to make them disabled-friendly” is plain hogwash. Builders are neither sensitive to the needs of their clients nor concerned about their special needs. If they were, we would not have public buildings with roofs that collapse, floors that give way or staircases with no support.

Penalty on builders

What we need is a firm law that imposes a severe penalty on builders who fail to protect the disabled occupants/users of these imposing structures. We need a law like the Disability Act of America where lack of proper facilities for the handicapped citizens in any public space can result in ruthless punishment for the authorities concerned including a jail term.

That is why hotels, restaurants, airports, malls, libraries and even schools and colleges in that country dare not deny the required amenities for the handicapped. Civic authorities will face the same treatment for lapses in spaces which the public use regularly. So, we see roads, pavements and entrance to buildings in all the cities with special ramps for wheelchair-bound citizens and special conveniences for the disabled in recreation centres, museums and parks. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law passed in 1990. It prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals in all areas of public life. They must have “equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities in any public place” whether it is a hotel, recreation centre, transportation or store. Even failure to remove architectural barriers will invite a harsh penalty. 

Progressive countries like America have realised that disabled citizens become a burden on their economy unless they are enabled to lead more useful lives. Do we too need a “Capitol Crawl” like the one in Washington where hundreds of disabled persons assembled on the steps of the Capitol building to force their legislators to pass the Bill?
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