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RPD Bill: Diversity, discourse and the disconnect

By Shampa Sengupta

In January 2014, I was invited to give a lecture at a Refresher Course on Cultures of the Margins in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Since I was asked to speak on disability issues, I thought I will start my class by asking questions on the Right of Persons with Disabilities Bill (RPD) – the question that how many in the class of 30 college lecturers knew that a new disability bill is being drafted and discussed was met by a stony silence. No, none of this erudite people had heard about it. As it was a fact that a court verdict on Section 377 was also discussed at the same time in our country, my next question was how many of them heard about 377 controversies – all the hands went up, and during the discussions some were for the verdict and some were against, whereas some showed neutral point of view. But the fact remains that each and everyone in that group knew what Section 377 was all about, while none were aware of the impending disability legislation. Being an activist working on both the issue of disability and gender, I felt somewhat perplexed. I was happy that public discourse on homosexuality has reached a level in my country where people, even if briefly, knew about the issue. Needless to say, I felt sad that disability is an area that remained in the “margins” in the truest sense.

For someone like me, who had been receiving more than hundreds of emails, text messages and feedback from social media sites regarding the RPD Bill each and every day in January 2014, this whole incident gave me a big jerk and I felt the need to go for a reality check. It would have been easier to put the blame on the other – the “abilist” world that does not want to know about lives of people with disabilities. But inner voice told me introspection is required. Should not the disability sector also look within to find the reasons of this disconnect with wider public?

When I look into the RPD Bill, I read it through varied lenses of my own life. I started working on the issue of disability 25 years ago as a professional with no personal experience of disability. After years of working in this sector, I became the primary care-giver of a disabled person. I also started having phases of mental illness myself – (I have reservations for the terms like psycho-social disability or survivor of psychiatry, and prefer to say I have mental illness). So that sort of completed the circle. However, the disability sector does not believe in such circles apparently. When the Dr. Sudha Kaul led committee was formed, there were violent protests from the sector saying that a non-disabled person is not acceptable in the role of Chairperson of a committee that is entrusted in drafting law for disabled people – discussions on how many members among the committee are disabled and how many are not took up important space. Though it is a well-known fact in the sector that Dr. Kaul is a parent of a disabled son herself, she was not seen as the face of parents’ group but was targeted as a “professional” in the whole discourse. The same kind of debate arises among women’s groups in accepting a man, asked to head a committee/commission for women’s issues. Yet, after the Delhi Rape Case, when Justice Verma Committee was formed, not a single women’s group questioned its composition; women’s groups welcomed the committee’s formation and the subsequent work it produced, univocally. The gender rights groups accepted the need for sensitive human beings with domain knowledge of the issue to be part of the committee formed to help to bridge between civil society and the Government during the law making process. Whether its members were men or women, whether they faced sexual violence in their own lives remained immaterial here.

So from the drafting stage to critiquing the RPD Bill, we have always heard people having one identity or the other. As if a care-giver can never be a disabled person or vice-versa. And disconnect of the sector within people with different “identities” is so strong that there are times they do not have any dialogue with each other.

And this is more so between different disability groups. Disability is a heterogeneous issue with too many different kinds of impairments and social dimensions involved. But different impairments and resultant handicaps that they bring have commonalities and yet are diverse. People with different kinds of disabilities do not intermingle with each other. For example, an activist with blindness may not have interacted with persons having intellectual disabilities, s/he may not have enough information about this group, and the same is true with activists with other forms of disabilities. Domain knowledge is often restricted to one or two forms of disabilities for these people. So during negotiations of the RPD Bill, in which at least 19 forms of disabilities are recognised, the disconnect between different groups was very apparent.

The larger disconnect that was felt was however between grass-root groups and big city-based disability groups. Majority of the dialogue that took place during the making of RPD Bill was in English language and between people who have access to internet. Though there were attempts to translate the Bill (2012 version) to local languages and organize discussions around it in certain areas of the country, the dominance of English knowing activists living in urban places throughout the discourse was very apparent. The class bias within   the disability sector was obvious as voices of the poor people are clearly missing from the debate. As far as grass-root level voices were concerned, I have heard those discussing the pros and cons of having more types of disabilities included in the RPD Bill. One activist, whose one leg and one hand has been affected by polio, once told me that he did not have any specific requirement to complete his studies. But to commute throughout the district of Howrah, where public transport is scarce, is still a nightmarish experience for him. He mentioned that requirement of persons with specific learning disabilities and his own are totally different; then, how could a law having similar clauses for all groups be helpful? He had a clear idea of differences of needs, barriers faced, and specific requirements of different groups, as he is actively involved organising disabled people in his district. He would love to see those needs reflected in the law, instead of following mandates mentioned in international laws. If one checks out the issues that were debated, one can see that a lot of discussions on employment benefits in the organised sector, promotion norms for the disabled persons, as well as property rights were central to the discussions – all of these evidently concerns of middle and upper income groups. The least discussed area was social security schemes and benefits for poor or homeless population which are included in the Bill. I have to admit that lack of voices of poor community as well as their concern in this whole process hurt me the most.

Interestingly, I found that the more the sector was disconnected from the ground realities of India, the more it felt drawn to the UNCRPD. The UNCRPD can be accepted as a “Bill of Rights” by us, but, it seems, the sector wanted each and every single provision mentioned in the CRPD to be copied in this law. Having firsthand experience of law-making processes in other sectors as well, I had never seen such an obsession with either the CEDAW or the CRC by women’s rights groups or child rights groups. In the case of RPD Bill, we wanted all the equality clauses mentioned in the CRPD but, also, added our own issues like reservations in jobs and educational institutions in the draft, notwithstanding the inherent contradictions. This top-down approach of law making itself is problematic.

I have asked myself several times, if we have so little communication among ourselves, how could we ever represent ourselves to the outer world?  No, I do not expect us talking in the same voice, we need to speak about our concerns even if they contradict a colleague but we need to remember that respect for diversity is one of the bases of our work. When we do not like to talk to each other, how will we ever be able to talk to people who are not within the disability sector? Perhaps, our failure to make the general society interested in our issue is also because of our lack of communication skills?

The fact remains that the disabled people are keen to take decisions on their own lives which was denied to them historically. But instead of making our voices more prominent in the mainstream society, are we increasing our distance from the same? The popular slogan “Nothing about us without us” may just boomerang on us if we as a sector are not open-minded enough to engage regularly with the mainstream society.


Shampa Sengupta is an activist working on disability and gender issues for past 25 years. She works for Sruti Disability Rights Centre. She is also elected as an Executive Committee member of National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD India).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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