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Job Reservations for the blind

Mon, 07/30/2012 - 17:05 -- admin

It’s a tricky issue. Do job reservations compensate for the discrimination that people with visual impairments face in the working world? Or do they simply lead to complacence and non-performance? Are incentives the way to go, or do they just promote a ‘charity culture’? Are visually impaired people not capable of succeeding on their own merits? Anu Bhambhani explores the many facets of this complex issue.

Dheeraj Pareek, a NET qualified visually impaired person, is currently looking for a government job. He is aware that the Disability Act mandates a 3 per cent job reservation for disabled persons in the government sector. But he is bitter and calls it all a farce. “The government has identified jobs for us but if we have to fight for what is our due at every stage, then what’s the use of reservations? Even the jobs identified are more or less ‘C’ or ‘D’ grade posts. Even if we are qualified and knowledgeable enough, the mental block in the non-disabled community regarding us would always remain.”

Do reservations really work? Are they needed? Will they solve the job situation of persons with visual impairments?

It is true that the Disability Act reserves 3 per cent of posts in Grade ‘C’ and ‘D’ posts in central government and public sector undertakings. But it is also true that even 10 years after the passage of the Disability Act the government sector has failed to employ an appreciable number of visually impaired persons. According to a survey, disabled persons constitute only .5 per cent of the workforce in the public sector.

Manoj Agarwal, a wheelchair user and a disability activist, feels that the real problem is that persons with disability are still viewed as objects of pity or contempt, and not as people who can be productive. “Disability creates a mental block in the minds of non-disabled people,” says Mr Agarwal, “There are many who feel that disabled people need not be given much importance on the job front. Leave alone that, they do not even want us to get what is our due (reservation) as per the law of the land.”

Dinesh Gujar, a visually impaired person working with the Punjab National Bank, adds, “The attitudes of people haven’t changed towards disabled people. I have had nasty experiences with people on good positions who look down upon the likes of us. They feel we don’t deserve to be competing against non-disabled persons.”

The government itself is guilty of showing little faith is its disabled workforce. Says (Dr) Justice H.S. Anand, former Chief Justice of India, and Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (N.H.R.C.), “When the Right to Employment Bill was being passed, we saw that it promised ‘…100 per cent employment to able-bodied persons…’ only,” he says. The N.H.R.C. was quick to question the government: did disabled people not deserve 100 per cent employment? The Bill was passed with the offending term suitably revised.

That may be so, but it has not led to any change in the job situation. While it is clear that persons with visual impairments or other disabilities are discriminated against at the workplace, what needs to be looked into is whether reservation would offer a solution to the problems of disabled people. An unnamed source in the Ministry of Labour is of the opinion that rather than harping on reservations, the more urgent need was for the creation of more jobs, with a special emphasis on promoting self-employment. Otherwise, a mere 3 per cent reservation for employment means nothing – it is peanuts in a country with such a huge disabled workforce. In any case, the government sector is not where the job expansion will happen in the coming years.

If the government doesn’t have too many jobs to offer, should the reservations then apply to the private sector as well?

Abhishek Singh, who works in a call centre as a Process Associate has strong views about reservation. Says Mr Singh, “I firmly believe that there need not be any reservation for any class of people. Many times it so happens that owing to reservation, a less qualified person gets the job instead of a deserving candidate. Giving the country and its machinery into the hands of incompetent people is something that scares me.”

His view is echoed by quite a number of people, and it may seem fair. Why give a job to someone less deserving? But proponents of reservations feel that if it is unfair to give a job to a less deserving person (because of being lesser qualified), it is equally unfair to prevent people from acquiring education and vocational skills in the first place. Schools in India are still not accessible to persons with disabilities and teaching mechanisms exclude children with blindness. Blind students who do make it to management schools, medical colleges, or the IAS are turned away because these institutions do not know how to handle students with blindness. In such a scenario who should be labeled incompetent? Blind people who cannot acquire education or the society which cannot give them the required facilities?

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Supporters of reservation feel that it should be seen for what it really is: an attempt to right a wrong.

That the quality of work will suffer at the hands of incompetent people (read: disabled people) is also refuted by many. Believes Mr Agarwal, “Unless a person is given the responsibility to handle work how would one come to know if he or she would ever be good at it. They might have got lower positions at school or college level but then that could have had happened due to lack of proper facilities. Instead of removing reservation for getting jobs, I think there shouldn’t be any reservation for promotion in a job. Let them get the job, prove themselves and then move up in life. But at least give them a chance.”

Corporates are also quick to point out that forcing reservations in the private sector will not work. “It has to be voluntary. If the government offers incentives,” feels Abraham Moses, Associate Director (Administration and Facilities), MindTree Consulting Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore, “companies would be sure to take advantage of it.” For instance, two months ago, he says, the Karnataka government declared a specific area a ‘special economic zone’, and offered a five-year tax exemption for companies willing to set up base there. “Where earlier there wasn’t any interest in that area, now everybody is running to take advantage of this announcement.”

Feels Manvendra Soam, heading the H.R. unit at Reliance Infocomm, Rajasthan, ‘It is not very easy to find qualified disabled people… . The nature of private jobs is such that we cannot employ a person solely for a sitting job. A little bit of movement is required. But then we can never overlook the fact that disabled people have their special needs. It might be very difficult to have them [properly] accommodated in the jobs.’

Reservation or no reservation, Mr Moses feels that companies would always make exceptions for skilled employees. “Mine is a software development company, and I cannot employ people with no background in this field. But if a skilled person applies and we find that we don’t have a post for him/her, many companies are flexible and willing to create a new profile to retain that person. Whether he/she is disabled or not does not come into the picture,” he says candidly.

However, all good intentions notwithstanding, the fact remains that the number of disabled people employed in the private sector is dismal. If hiring on a ‘voluntary’ basis could work, it would have worked. The fact that it has not points to something very wrong in the theory. And to the need for action, not honourable intentions.

Private firms in China are offered high tax benefits in lieu of employing persons with disabilities. As a result, the rate of employment of persons with disability in China is an astounding 84%. In neighbouring Japan, those firms who fail to meet the 1.8% ratio of employing disabled, are penalised. The penalty is not a big deal for the rich Japanese companies. But it does point to the fact that disabled people there are considered ‘different’ and not ‘differently-abled’ people. “The fact that private concerns in Japan prefer to pay fine rather than employ disabled people may be due to the fact that the disabled population is a miniscule number there,” Soam opines. “In a country as vast as India, it is impractical to employ disabled just because the government says so. At the end of the day, all private companies are here to earn. They are concerned with money and not with any social obligations. I think it would be better if the government can provide us with some tax benefits or incentives of some sort or the other,” he says, echoing Mr Moses.

The right to employment is a Constitutional right, which has so far been denied due to a lack of economic capacity, says Justice Anand. “At N.H.R.C., we refuse to accept that Constitutional rights are subject to economic constraints,” he declares.

In America, the government cancels its contracts with companies that are found to be discriminatory regarding employment of disabled persons. Since the government is the biggest contractor, the cancellation of its contracts is a big business blow. Companies thus are motivated to be non-discriminatory. The government also very strictly monitors any deviations from its policy of being non-discriminatory as far as employment of persons with disabilities is concerned.

While there are many models, India has to decide which model it adopts. Fortunately, we have had a history of being a socialist republic not driven by economic wisdom only. It is clear that the corporate world lags behind in fulfilling its obligations to the society it exists in.

Survival of the fittest may be the ruling mantra in today’s competitive world but surely social laws don’t work that way. All people, irrespective of their caste, sex and creed, exist here. And it becomes a social responsibility to provide an environment that integrates everyone into the fold. This is an important fact to be realised in a country as ours where socio-cultural factors play a major role in changing stereotyped perceptions about people and their ability/disability.

What’s interesting is that while some people may be opposed to reservation on a caste basis, they readily agree to an increased percentage of reservation for persons with disabilities. Says Rishabh Mehta, working as a Project Coordinator with a leading telecom company, “I see hardly any difference between myself and a person from a supposedly lower caste. Maybe the latter had to face hurdles but I too have had my own share of struggles to come up in life. But when it comes to a person with disability, I feel here is a person who’s had to face real hardship due to physical limitations. I do not mind reservation being extended to them, but then this reservation must be limited to getting a job alone and not get extended to getting a promotion.”

These words would be music to Dinesh Pareek whose search for a government job continues

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