A few days ago, I happened to visit an ATM to withdraw some cash. The ATM was located in a busy marketplace and in a narrow space between two shops. The machine had to be accessed by climbing a short flight of steps. At the glass fronted entrance there was a notice which referred to a Reserve Bank circular advising banks to install ATMs in locations which people with mobility challenges could access, unless there were infrastructural limitations which prevented this. The bank notice served as an information that this particular ATM was not accessible to the disabled because of these said limitations.
I had seen similar notices at other ATMs in this busy market and realised that that there were several surfaces at ground level where the ATMs could have been installed and made disabled friendly. However, those locations would no doubt be a tad more expensive and also require a bit more space in order to accommodate wheelchairs. By locating the machines in a way that they could only be accessed via a flight of steps, the bank was saving some cash for sure but also denying access to an essential service to those with disabilities.
I am also reminded of an experience during my tenure working with a small organization several years ago. It employed approximately 30 or so people and one of the two or three toilets was a wheelchair – friendly toilet. There were no persons with disabilities employed during my stint there and I often wondered about the utility of their facility. One day when I asked, this was what I was told: “It does not matter whether we have such an employee today or not. One day we may employ such a person with disabilities or interview someone for a position. And when they come into the office for an interview, as an employee or even as a visitor, we don’t want that person to feel awkward. So our office entrance has a ramp and our corridors are wide and we have a toilet available which they can use if they need to”. This was a perspective that I rarely get to see.
Disability Rights in India sadly remain largely on paper. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment looks after the Rights and Welfare of the Disabled and the Parliament has enacted the The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act in 2016. But that is about it. In the absence of any watchdogs and civil society activism, the law is just one of the many that India has enacted over the years.
There are numerous non-governmental organisations working in the disability sector. They almost always work in the area of welfare – providing hearing aids, wheelchairs and teaching people braille or sign language. While this is helpful as any act of charity is, the acts will only go so far.
There is a story about the well-known painter Satish Gujral that once shaped my paradigm. Satish was not born deaf. He lost his hearing when he was 8 following an accident and back in those days when he was a child, there were no treatment options. So, he grew up with deafness and evolved as a painter. Later in life, after he fell in love and got married, his wife Kiran was his de facto hearing window to the world. They settled into a comfortable rhythm. Much later in his life, he had the opportunity to have a cochlear implant and have his hearing restored. For the first time in decades, he could hear for himself. But for Satish, who for nearly all his life, was now used to Kiran filtering all the cacophony and noise from the world, the gift of hearing neither did not prove to be a blessing. In his own words “I lost my hearing at the age of eight. When I was 80, I got the implant. Sound came back but it was not familiar to me. I got the implant removed! Every world has its own attraction. Had I got the implant after two-three years of my deafness, it would’ve been fine. But after so many years, I could not recognise another world…”
I once had the opportunity to work for another organisation which distributed hearing aids to those whose hearing was impaired and it was around this time that I heard Satish Gijral’s story, and realised that disabled people need more than a piece of machinery. They need their rights. While distributing wheel chairs to those who remain confined to their homes is a good thing it is of limited utility if there are no shops one can visit, no ATMs to withdraw cash from, no offices they can mark attendance in and earn a living. The late Javed Abidi created the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) with aid and assistance from the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. With a rousing slogan “Nothing about us, without us” , they effectively initiated the disability rights movement and transformed people with disabilities from passive recipients of charity into an empowered class of people, conscious and demanding of their rights. We need more of such an approach if the empowerment of the disabled has to move beyond the semantics of calling them “divyang” instead of “viklang”.
By Dr. Shantanu Dutta
A former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.