Disability Network is a Pune-based organisation run for persons with disabilities by persons with disabilities themselves. The organisation was founded by a cross-disability group; the "fearless four" behind the effort are are Vinay "Win" Phatak, Divyanshu Ganatra, Basant Kumar Indurkar, and Vikram Ingale.
"It was about two years ago. Divyanshu Ganatra and I would often meet at seminars and workshops that invited persons with disabilities," says Phatak. "One thing that struck us as peculiarly significant was that disabled people are not decision-makers. This was what prompted us to start something on our own and DN opened doors in April 2001. Our basic idea is to connect people and let them derive something of benefit from such networking. What we do is keep information with us and pass it on."
DN aims to increase the participation and contribution of India's millions of men, women and children with disabilities in all aspects of life. The primary idea is to create a network among people with disabilities and groups and organisations that work with and for such affected individuals, and then to let each benefit in whatever way they can. DN functions as a think tank, an information clearing-ground, and aspires to aid physically challenged people enhance their life. "Our mission is to provide information that will help persons with disabilities become independent. But we say to the physically challenged person that instead of providing you with a wheelchair, we will try and work for a policy that will guarantee some long-term improvement," avers Phatak.
In the first year of its functioning, DN held scheduled meetings and open houses, and these provided information about options for earning. The focus of DN's activities at that time was on income generation. It also set out to prove that disabled individuals can also contribute to the economy, and are not an economic 'burden on society'. Disability Network has been working with business leaders in order to help them understand how disabled persons can provide the right skill-sets to the market-place. DN takes home feedback from businesses and organises training sessions accordingly; it is hoped that corporate houses will support the empowerment of persons with disabilities because it is mutually beneficial to both the business community and the disabled community.
Phatak adds, "We work with the blind, and deaf and dumb groups on a close level, understanding the specific problems faced by people with such disabilities, and in turn finding groups or individuals who can alleviate these problems. We also include certain mental disabilities such as schizophrenia in our scope of work, but we feel that we are not equipped to deal with mental disabilities," he clarifies.
Since networking is its raison d'être, DN's founders devote considerable time and effort in communicating with similar groups on an international level. The purpose is to find out what is happening on these issues in different places, and how ideas generated elsewhere can be of use back home. This also makes their outlook more global.
DN's latest activities focus on the subject of access - access to infrastructure, access to communication and access to information on various websites hosted on the Internet. Access, as defined by the group, is the ease with which a person with disability can move about or use something.
"Our immediate plan is to do a survey of Pune city for accessibility," says Phatak. "We intend to undertake a detailed scrutiny of the 800 kilometres of city roads to check out bus-stops that can be made more accessible to disabled persons, or then public institutions such as restaurants, banks, theatres. Volunteers will move around and rate the accessibility factor according to the norms laid down by the Commissioner for Disability, New Delhi." DN has also created an Accessibility Directory, giving persons with disabilities a detailed list of accessible institutions in their neighbourhood. In fact, it is due to the efforts of DN that a few public transport buses in the city have lowered their boarding steps by about eight inches, thus making it easier for not just disabled people, but even senior citizens, to board buses. A few bus-stops too have been modified keeping special needs in mind.
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Along with all these activities, DN continues to work towards its primary objective - that of networking. The founders are convinced that availability of information is one strong means of empowerment. They also endeavour to bring about an attitudanal change towards disability - both within and outside the group. They assert that unless the disabled take the initiative of bettering their own life, they will never be able to get up and move on.