The history of codification of the rights of the disabled coincides with the era of reforms.
Any assessment of the economic reforms of the past 25 years could well do with some understanding of their impact on people with disabilities in India. Indeed, in view of the negligible levels of participation of people with various impairments in economically productive activity, the influence of these sweeping policy changes would seem at best minimal. In the event, even the staunchest critic of liberalisation would have to acknowledge that the greatest legislative and policy changes since Independence that affect such a large section of our population have been initiated in the post-privatisation phase. A plausible explanation of this post-protectionist paradox may be found in the need for greater regulation under more market-oriented conditions.
Codifying rights for the disabled
Most curiously, the history of codification of the rights of people with disabilities coincides more or less with the commencement of the era of economic reforms. Even though legal guarantees enshrined under the Constitution were read into judicial and executive decisions during earlier decades, they were notably few and far between, informed largely by an ad hoc approach to addressing issues, or at times a spillover from an activist judiciary.
It was the landmark Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, over four years after the reforms, which stipulated specific provisions concerning equal opportunities to basic education, employment, and accessibility. Every policy advance, or its absence, witnessed since that path-breaking legislation has turned on these three fundamental ingredients critical to a better quality of life. Since the passage of that comprehensive law, the lot of the disabled had moved, one might say, from a mode of thinking akin to the Directive Principles of State Policy discourse, to a more robust, Fundamental Rights approach to matters.
Any serious evaluation of what people with disabilities have gained in these past 25 years would probably have to begin with showcasing the political will India’s leadership displayed to generate the very tools to arrive at such an independent and impartial assessment. That was the bold decision the National Democratic Alliance government took to canvass disabilities in the 2001 decennial population census. The real import of the measure becomes apparent when we consider that the 1981 census was the lone exception to the otherwise routine exclusion of this category from the countrywide exercise since Independence.
As per the 2011 enumeration, India is home to 26.8 million people with disabilities, whereas other estimates put the figure at about thrice that number. Census 2011 also shows that 54.5 per cent of people with disabilities in India are literate — a 5.2 percentage point improvement over the previous decade.
Jobs and the open economy
Under liberalisation, employment opportunities have expanded into the private sector, almost unthinkable hitherto. Employers such as ITC, Lemon Tree Hotels, Mphasis, Wipro, and so many others have seen the economic wisdom behind playing on the strengths, rather than the impairments, of our manpower. Notable here are also the equality and diversity norms that the corporate sector is beginning to incorporate in its hiring practices. It would be hard to overlook the direct benefits flowing from the adoption of an open economy in these respects.
In the arena of state employment, the more industrious and enterprising among the disabled have, aided by the Supreme Court’s proactive interpretations of the equal opportunities provisions in the 1995 law, entered the corridors of the administrative services. There are athletes with disabilities who have brought laurels to the country. Access at polling booths seems to have become almost irreversible since the apex court’s landmark 2004 ruling stipulating easy access through ramps. The greater visibility for disability-related concerns in our media is also part of this broad picture of inclusion, howsoever restricted.
The Government of India has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and corresponding domestic legislation is in the making. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship initiatives such as the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan — designed to bridge physical barriers — are encouraging signs. Yet, they cannot conceal the impatience among disabled people with the glaring disparities that stare us in the face every day.
The census and other data discussed above in fact capture this dismal reality. Of the literate among the disabled, only 8.5 per cent boast a graduate degree, as per the 2011 census. A mere 21.1 per cent of Indian schools adhere to inclusive education for children with disabilities; just 1.32 per cent of teachers have been equipped with the relevant special skills training. This finding of a survey by the National Council of Educational Research and Training points to the challenges in relation to employability. As much as 73.9 per cent of disabled people in the employable age are either non-workers or marginal workers.
These are the numbers that should worry us, and prod us into action. Women with disabilities are most vulnerable to exploitation, as also people with psycho-social impairments and those hard of hearing. The revised National Building Code of India and the corresponding revision of State bylaws can potentially break many of these barriers provided elements of universal design are incorporated.
Javed Abidi is Honorary Director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People and founder of the Disability Rights Group.