Javed Abidi on the status of the disabled in India.
June 2002: According to conservative estimates, approximately 6% of India's population is disabled. And if we go by what the U.N. officials or various other experts say, the figure could very well be in double digits. After all, Australia does admit officially that 18% of their population is affected by one form of disability or the other. United Kingdom's disabled population is estimated at 14.2%, whereas in the United States, it is 9%.
Why are the numbers so high for such 'developed' nations as Australia or U.K. or U.S.A.? The answer is quite simple. One, their definition of 'disability' is much broader and embracing. For example, in such countries 'people with internal conditions' are also considered disabled. These are individuals where the disability is not very visible. A person with one lung or one kidney or a person with a severe heart ailment would be termed 'disabled'. In certain countries, even diabetics are given shade under the umbrella of disability.
Such countries and societies are now looking at disability as a social issue and not as a medical one, as is the case in India where disability is a stigma. To be disabled means to be a person without a leg or arm or eye or twisted or worse, crooked! People are ashamed to be labelled 'disabled'.
The second reason is the methodology - how do we go about collecting our numbers. In 'developed' societies, almost each person in the country is accounted for. Every citizen has a social security number, with vital data about what is his/her age, his/her educational status and yes, whether he/she is disabled or non-disabled. So, the numbers are far more accurate, far more authentic. In India, we rely on the Census, an exercise that is conducted once every ten years. Millions of enumerators fan out all across the country and start knocking on the doors of houses, whether in urban areas or in the villages and slums. But then, India is not an easy country. It is vast, the numbers are huge and no matter how hard one may try, there are villages upon villages which are just simply not accessible. So, one has to, I guess, take these Census Commission figures with a pinch of salt. However, what is most tragic as far as disabled people in India are concerned is the fact that our Census Commission never bothered to collect statistics on disability. Atleast, not since India attained independence from the British Raj. Thus, to put it simply, the name of the game thus far has been: No Census, no statistics, no problem! The only attempt India made was in 1991, when a so-called National Sample Survey was conducted. It pegged the population of disabled people in India at 1.9%. And that perhaps is one of the reasons for the false that citizens are just simply not affected by disability. Alas, I wish that was true.
The Invisible Minority - 60 million
I hope that by now there should not be too much of a doubt in your mind that a very sizeable section of our population is affected by one disability or the other. If we agree on the conservative estimate of 6%, we are talking about the welfare and well-being of approximately 60 million of our citizens. Can we ignore them? More importantly, can we afford to ignore them? Just to establish the numbers even further, let me also share with you the statistics from our own neighbourhood: China - 5%, Nepal - 5% and Pakistan - 4.9%. These are all absolute, authentic statistics, sourced from the 'UN Manual for the Development of Statistical Information for Disability Programmes and Policies; 1996'. After a massive public campaign, the Government of India finally yielded and has included disability as a category in Census 2001. We also should now get more accurate statistics but in a year or two.
So, for how long are we going to ignore the facts and the realities? The fact that a disabled person in India can neither attend school, nor go to a college; that getting employment is next to impossible; that something as simple and ordinary as going to a cinema hall or to a park becomes a sort of an ordeal.
What we have done, most probably without even realizing it, is to have left this 6% of our population totally behind. To the point that they, our own brothers and sisters, are no longer visible. They have become 'the invisible minority' of our great nation.
Ignore 'them' But At Your Own Peril
The most grevious mistake our policy makers and decision makers have made is to have looked at disability as a charity issue, as a welfare issue whereas it was, it is and it should rightly be a development issue, a progress issue and to my mind, an economic issue. Can any country afford to have 6% of its population live off charity? Is it not a drain on its resources? Does it not affect the nation's economy? It is about time that we wake up and take a totally fresh look at disability.
No country or society can ever progress or develop leaving 6% of its population behind. In terms of human resources, we are talking about a potential workforce of 60 million people. I am no economist but if we can facilitate even some portion of this population into becoming working and productive members of our society, then don't we have more tax-payers? Conversely, if this huge mass of 60 million Indians was to sit idle, as 'prisoners of circumstances' at home, and remain dependent on charity, then what impact would that have on the nation's future prospects, it's progress and its economy? Can such a nation ever even dream of being a 'developed' nation?
The Disability Act 1995
Rajiv Gandhi was a man of vision. When he became Prime Minister of India, he recognised disability as a core issue. He appointed a high - powered committee under the chairmanship of Justice Baharul Islam. The committee gave its report in 1988 but before anything very concrete could materialise, Rajiv Gandhi went out of power in 1989. The Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao picked up the issue from where it had got left and to keep a long story short, 'The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995' was passed by the Indian Parliament in December of 1995. It was notified on 7th February, 1996 and thus, it became the law of the land.
Chapter VI of The Disability Act 1995 is entitled 'Employment'. Clause 41 categorically mandates incentives to employers, both in public and private sectors, who ensure that at least 5% of their work force is composed of persons with disabilities. In 1999, the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) conducted a Research Study to examine the employment practices of the Indian corporate sector with reference to people with disabilities. A brief questionnaire was sent to the 'Super 100' companies and after much follow-up and persuasion, we did get 70 responses. We suspected that the picture would be dismal, but the statistics that finally emerged just simply stunned us! Some of the key findings were as follows:
Let us look forward and move on. Let us be honest and admit that we have made mistakes. And let us have the candour to say that we will not repeat them. Let us join hands, the disabled and the non-disabled, to build an India that we can all be proud of. An India, where all of us can move around freely. An India that is not just tolerant but 'inclusive'. An India, where all of us, with or without a disability, can live with dignity and honour.
JAVED ABIDI was born with a condition called Spina Bifida. He has been a wheelchair-user since the age of 15. Abidi is based in New Delhi, where he heads the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. NCPEDP is at A-77, South Extension, Part - I, New Delhi - 110049, India. E-mail: email@example.com. This article was written in 2001, and is published by India Together in arrangement with VOICES, Bangalore.