Empowering persons with disability

Last Updated 24 December 2019, 18:51 IST

Across the globe, persons with disability (Divyangjan, PwD) have been suffering extreme forms of social neglect and exclusion. This continues to haunt civil societies on the issue of human rights. No major social movements have occurred in India for the holistic empowerment of PwD. Poverty, lack of awareness and public apathy prevent them from entering the social mainstream as productive individuals.

The first seeds of an Independent Living Movement (ILM) were sown by the initiatives of students with disability in American universities in the 1960s. For instance, Berkeley, California, introduced self-help programmes to enable them to attend mainstream courses. Similar experiences outside campuses prompted the students to organise a Centre for Independent Living (CIL) and develop a list of ‘Five Basic/Core Services’ to help them to be on par with the rest of society: housing, personal assistance, transport, access and counselling. Later, information and technical equipment were added by the Derbyshire CIL to usher in the widely known ‘Seven Needs of the Disabled’. Further addition of four more services by the Hampshire CIL — employment, education & training, income & benefits, and advocacy — has transformed the empowerment framework into the ‘Eleven Needs of the Disabled’.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) 2006 focused explicitly on disability. A World Report on Disability (WRD, 2011) and the Indian RPwD Act/Rules (2016/17), fully aligned to WRD, are now available to develop affirmative action plans to deliver the 11 services. A collection of global best practices to include those with disability in development (UN, 2011) is also available to guide future initiatives.

Empowerment should be developed based on a sound database of PwD. The UN recommends that the ‘Washington Group Questionnaire (WGQ) on functioning’ be used for data collection. The WRD indicates that in developing countries, PwD constitutes 15-20% of the poor while UNESCO data shows that the mortality rate among children with disability is 80%. About 98% of such children are not enrolled in schools, depriving them of access to due rights.

Whereas the WRD estimates an average of 9-10% of the global population, India reports a much lower percentage (3-4%) based on census, perhaps due to different criteria adopted. Given the seriousness of the issue, regional/local surveys (state or district) need to be conducted and empowerment programmes are undertaken without waiting for the next national census figures.

The RPwD Act/Rules (2016/17) identify 21 types of disabilities: blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured persons, hearing impairment (deaf/hard of hearing), locomotor disability, dwarfism, intellectual disability, mental illness, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, chronic neurological conditions, specific learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis, speech and language disability, thalassemia, haemophilia, sickle cell disease, etc.

The WRD prescribes governments to frame policies for service standards, defined responsibilities, access to buildings, transport, information/communication facilities, poverty alleviation programmes, the inclusion of disability parameters in the state/national databases and undertake campaigns to increase public understanding of disability. Similarly, academic institutions should strive to remove barriers in recruitment procedures, integrate human rights principles in all professional training courses and conduct disability-related research. The private sector is encouraged to promote equal opportunities in recruitment, accommodation and provide access to microfinance for self-employment/ entrepreneurship. Although most countries, including India, have enacted legislation to help/empower PwD, programmatic action platforms are yet to be integrated into their development plans.

It is important to note that each disability type requires a specially designed service/empowerment programme. Generally, two types of action plans could effectively deliver the 11 services: one for the totally dependent PwD, who may need life-time support (specially designed and professionally managed old age homes, hospitals and counselling centres). Second, for those who could be empowered through one or more selected services to become productive citizens. Among the 11 services, access to education holds the key to empowerment and advocacy. Ultimately, the outcomes of all empowerment programmes should be measured against the level of advocacy attained by the PwD, i.e., the capacity to articulate their rights by themselves, similar to CILs.

In India, primary and secondary schools involved in educating PwD are most visible whereas dedicated higher education institutions are rare. Two institutions in Uttar Pradesh are currently involved in extending higher education to the disabled. In Karnataka, an initiative to establish a college of education for PwD by the CELECT Foundation, Bangaramakki, Uttara Kannada, is on the anvil. However, innovative/specially designed programmes under the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) and Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) are grossly underutilized so far.

The current feeble momentum needs to be scaled up beyond the visuals of special arrangements for the PwD to cast their votes. It is not an impossible task, provided a right mix of political will, administrative support and corporate involvement is available.

(The writer is former Registrar, Bangalore University)

(Published 24 December 2019, 17:40 IST)

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