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The UNCRPD is common sense

By V. S. Sunder

Most people’s ideal of a normal and productive life would go along the following lines: go to school, and, later, to college, in relatively safe and conducive environs; after a certain amount of education, be suitably employed; be able to manage one’s finances, thereby involving the opening and operating of one’s own bank account;  once every five years – or maybe even less – one would like to believe one has  a chance to have one’s voice heard by exercising one’s franchise when the country goes to the polls to decide who will lead the next government .

Let us examine the extent of feasibility of each of these ‘normal’ needs if you are a person with disability (PWD, henceforth).

First, there is the issue of getting admission in a school of one’s choice, and being taught by people who can communicate to your child. The first is a Herculean task for most people, leave alone PWDs. If the child’s vision, hearing or speech has some manner of impairment, most Indian schools will not satisfy the seemingly trivial second requirement stipulated earlier. If the child has some manner of mobility impairment, (s)he will almost surely need to attend many classes in the first, second or third storey of a building without elevators, and will be unable to find any disabled-friendly toilets and might be forced to experience the treat of crawling on the floor of a bathroom that is so dirty that most girls do not use the school’s toilet all day if they can help  it! The icing on the cake is how the child safely negotiates the various hurdles en route from home to school. Just imagine your child having to cross Poonamallee High Road, Nungambakkam High Road or East Coast Road in Chennai with only a wheel-chair or a white stick to help her! If the child somehow gets past all this and her schooling successfully, the colleges are no better or easier to navigate. As for getting a job, how many employers have the empathy to employ a candidate with disability/ies. There used to be a notion of Corporate Social Responsibility but our finance ministry is giving a sign of things to come by waiving the requirement of CSR for government banks `until the economy gets better’ – acche din ke baad? And the disability sector is not making things any easier by squabbling over categories of PWD and percentages of posts to be reserved for each!

If, after (in spite of?) all this, you do manage to get a job, you will want/need to deposit your earnings in a bank. If your disability is of a psycho-social or mental nature, the desire stated in the last sentence is easier said than fulfilled! The powers that be might decide that you need a `legal guardian’ to have a joint account with, or worse, to operate the account (with your money) on your behalf! If you did manage to open a bank account, the supposedly `easy way’ to take money out of the bank is from an ATM. But if you use a wheel-chair or are visibility impaired, you run into the next set of problems: you either have to negotiate a bunch of steps (with no ramp in view) and a glass door that must be pulled open after you manage to get to the top, or a machine with a bunch of instructions that one needs to read and react to by selecting an appropriate series of buttons in a specific order! And if you have a hearing problem, you can be sure there will be nobody in the bank with a nodding acquaintance with signing conventions!

As for casting your vote like a conscientious citizen, I can speak first-hand only on what a person in a wheel-chair has to undergo. Imagine having to first negotiate a narrow road with two-and four-wheelers parked so densely that you can forget any idea of going anywhere on your wheel-chair. You try to get dropped as close as you can to the polling booth, and then hobble on a crutch or on somebody else’s arm up the inevitable flight of four or five steps and a further number of steps into the room where you have to show your voter’s ID, and do what you came to do. My MS (multiple sclerosis) has fortunately reduced me to a state of complete immobility; I just could not have voted unless someone had carried me all the way there. Unlike what was suggested by JFK, I would be justified in asking what my country has done for me, and why I should do anything for my country.

I can only imagine what a person with visibility or hearing impairment would have to undergo, and you can be sure that would not be a picnic! One can only hope that steps would immediately be taken on a war-like footing to go about ensuring real accessibility of polling stations around the country, rather than paying lip-service to the exercise a few weeks before the elections.

Let me conclude with this entreaty to the powers that be in Delhi for if and when they finally decide to include me and millions of people like me into their calculations when planning for an inclusive India: not all decisions should be made only on the basis of people in Delhi that the national press is familiar with. They should do their home-work and consider disability activists in other parts of India, such as the Disability Rights Alliance in Chennai, which has many stalwarts of this sector (with at least two decades of experience) but without inflated opinions of themselves as being the only `real’ spokespersons of Indian PWDs. Finally, in the spirit of “nothing for us, without us”, take care to involve a reasonable cross-section of disability activists representing different interests before making decisions that will affect the lives of millions of Indian PWDs.

Many of these themes have been discussed in great detail in the more than 100 posts in my blog: http://differentstrokes-vss.blogspot.in

Author: 

V. S. Sunder is a reasonably accomplished research mathematician (decorated with the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar award, for instance) who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2002. Ever since, he wanted to do something about sensitising people regarding issues faced by PWD in a non-inclusive environment. For starters, he wrote a fortnightly column called Different Strokes for Different Folks that was carried by TOI on its Op-Ed Page. He is a member of DRA, which has shown him what real commitment and inclusivity means.

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

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