Accessibility in public places, restaurants, movie theatres, and even public transport systems continue to be a dream for persons with disabilities, writes Ambika Raja.

Image for representation
Voices Disability Rights Friday, February 21, 2020 - 10:05
When I received an invitation from the Commonwealth Foundation to be a speaker at their event aimed at advancing disability rights, I had my reservations. I was doubtful that two years of experience working as a journalist with disabilities was qualification enough to speak alongside notable human rights activist Akhila Sivadas, founder of The Centre for Advocacy and Research.

However, the three-day event gave me a platform to voice my ideas and exchange views on various aspects of disability. Interactions with nearly 15 delegates representing civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in Bangladesh, Kenya, Guyana, Jamaica and Ghana taught me that though political, social, and economic contexts can be starkly different, issues faced by persons with disabilities (PwDs) and organisations working for the communities are more or less the same.

When asked why the event was held, Gillian Cooper, Programme Manager, Knowledge Learning and Communications, said, “Events such as this are rare chances for project leaders to engage other powerful advocates in their field. Every context is different but it’s clear that sharing experiences and strategies will help these crucial projects and leaders apply fresh approaches to their own work, and continue advancing disability rights in India and at home”.

The World Report on Disability released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2011 estimated that 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability; yet a national census carried out that year in India put that figure at just 2.21 percent of the Indian population.The disparity with global statistics produced by the WHO as well as those released by high-income nations suggests the census data is flawed. Indeed, there have been several cases of data collectors leaving aside questions on disability, skipping certain questions and not interacting directly with the person with the disability. These have resulted in skewed data on PwDs in India.

Participants at the Commonwealth Foundation meeting discussed the need for comprehensive data on PwDs and exchanged effective methods through which data collection can be enhanced in their respective countries. The gathering also reviewed existing national laws and policies governing PwDs. While the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (India, 2016) increased the number of jobs reserved for PwDs in government departments, and directed state governments to ensure accessibility in public places and inclusivity training, the impact of the law is yet to be felt in both urban and rural areas of the country. 
 
Accessibility in public places, restaurants, movie theatres, and even public transport systems continue to be a dream for PwDs. In more developed states in the country, though children with disabilities are enrolled in schools, they are unable to attend classes regularly due to accessibility issues. Women with disabilities face added difficulties owing to taboos surrounding gender and disability, which are strongly prevalent throughout the country.  As per the ‘Invisible Victims of Sexual Violence: Access to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities in India’ report released in 2018, women and girls with disabilities are at a higher risk of sexual violence in India. There have been several instances where physical help has been offered to women and girls with disabilities as a means of exploiting them sexually. As a result, parents are often reluctant to let their daughters with disabilities travel alone within the country.

In addition to this, women with disabilities are perceived incapable of leading an independent life and are often encouraged to get married to other persons with disabilities. The process of finding a partner/spouse is equally challenging, broadly owing to the false notions that women with disabilities are asexual, are not capable of performing household chores and are unable to provide for children.
 
Superstition, coupled with lack of basic amenities for PwDs has resulted in poor living standards for a majority of the disabled population in India.

Human rights advocates who attended the meeting pointed out the lack of interest shown by the media in discussing issues affecting PwDs as well as the negative portrayals of the disabled community. While media is a powerful tool that, if used effectively, can help support PwDs, mainstream media houses often tend to overlook the problems PwDs face. Though the magnitude of coverage has increased considerably over the years, it is rarely seen as an important issue. Participants at the meeting called for reporters to cover news related to PwDs and avoid using language with negative connotations when publishing their stories, including ‘suffering’, ‘wheelchair-bound’ and ‘blind’.

Sharing her experience of attending the Learning Exchange programme, Sandrea Long White, Managing Director, Community Based Rehabilitation Jamaica said,
 
“The learning exchange gave me the opportunity to learn about the experiences and strategies used by other civil society organisations in advocating for the rights of PwDs. I am also looking forward to utilizing the new knowledge and tools for better accountability of government, key stakeholders and to utilize media more effectively to have greater impact in our work to provide services and support for children with disabilities and their families in Jamaica”.

Ngao Mwavuna, Advocacy Officer, Action Network for the Disabled, Kenya, who was also a participant of the event, said, "The learning exchange enhanced my understanding of why state parties should reaffirm that persons with disabilities have the right to recognition as embedded in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) towards realising opportunities on an equal basis with others, especially towards UNCRPD Articles 24 (Education); 25 (Health); 27 (Work and Employment) and 29 (Participation in political and public life). Action Network for the Disabled (ANDY) will be incorporating the knowledge from this workshop to strengthen the disabled persons organisations (DPOs) and groups within our Disability Advocacy Coalition in Kenya to formulate strong evidence based advocacy issues."

While it is necessary that the Indian government strengthen existing laws for persons with disabilities and frame new ones for raising their living standards, it is equally imperative that people shed taboos surrounding disability and create an inclusive space for the community.
 
Ambika is a journalist, disability activist, and Network of Women in Media fellow 2018-19.