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Looking back, looking ahead

Tue, 07/31/2012 - 11:16 -- admin

The needs of India's disabled people have so far not been properly addressed by the Government who has failed to provide for them adequately. Our planners need to discuss the disability issue in its entirety. Malvika Kaul takes a look at the proposals and promises of the 11th Five Year Plan

The Planning Commission is in the process of finalising the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012), an exercise that involves inputs and feedback from various working groups, committees and experts. According to the draft approach paper prepared by the Commission, our country's leaders aim to move towards 'faster and more inclusive growth' from 2007 onwards.

"We don't want charity, we want parity," says Dr G.N. Karna, Chairman of the Working Group on the Planning Group on Disability, who recently submitted his report to the Planning Commission. Dr Karna echoes the sentiments of many disabled people who want to be heard and to be able to exercise their rights.

The planners appear quite satisfied at the growth rate achieved in the 10th Five Year Plan. They state that the average growth rate in the last four years of the 10th Plan period (2002-07) is likely to be a little over eight per cent, the highest growth rate achieved in any Plan period. But, they are concerned that the growth so far has been uneven, and that economic growth has failed to be sufficiently inclusive, particularly after the mid-1990s.

One of the groups left out of this exceptionally fast growth are persons with disabilities. In fact, how far their aspirations and expectations have been represented in the previous Five Year Plans is itself a big question. And this is an area that cannot be neglected.

G. Shyamala, Executive Director, Action for Ability Development and Inclusion (AADI) and a member of the Steering Committee (which will propose to the Planning Commission), says, "Disability is such a cross-cutting issue. Take housing, employment and health-policies on all these issues affect disabled people. Our planners need to look at the disability issue encompassing all dimensions of development. A disabled child could belong to a bureaucrat, farmer or a shopkeeper. A disabled child could be a girl, a Dalit. So far, the Ministry has not considered Persons With Disabilities [PWD] as a heterogeneous group. It should look at them as individuals with diverse needs."

The various Plans have concentrated largely on providing "welfare" to the disabled-grants, scholarships, fellow-ships, medical aid and free access to some facilities. But, as experts on disability issues have often said, it is time that the planners make a radical shift. The Government should stop seeing PWD as beneficiaries of a welfare system and more as equal citizens with legal and political rights.

The welfare model, the experts argue, does not consider the barriers created by geographical distances and physical immobility. Neither does it involve care and commitment towards victims of accidents and natural disasters, nor does it reach out to those who have psychosocial problems.

It is unfortunate that for over six decades planners have had limited vision in the empowerment and development process of a group that is both large and diverse. The Planning Commission's draft paper says, "The key element of the strategy for inclusive growth must be an all-out effort to provide the mass of our people the access to basic facilities such as health, education, clean drinking water, etc, that they need. In the short run these essential public services impact directly on welfare. In the longer run they determine economic opportunities for the future...Even if we succeed in achieving broad-based and inclusive growth, there are many groups that may still remain marginalised. These include primitive tribal groups, adolescent girls, the elderly and the disabled who lack family support, children below the age of three and others who do not have strong lobbies to ensure that their rights are guaranteed. The 11th Plan must pay special attention to these groups..."

"The only area where the Government has considered inclusiveness so far is in the education sector," points out Shyamala. "Take the Employment Guarantee Act, the Rural Health Mission—where do the disabled people fit into these?" She then continues: "Accessibility of services and spaces is still not possible for most of the disabled population. Policy-makers also need to work to change the attitudes of people. We need a friendlier environment for the disabled person." She feels that, so far, the planners have not been able to do anything substantial to change things for the better.

"The disabled count for nearly 10 per cent of the population. Although there is no dearth of schemes, the Government in the past has failed to implement most of them," highlights Dr Karna.

He adds that very few organisations or institutes are penalised for not providing a barrier-free environment to the disabled. There is no comprehensive policy towards the education and employment of people with disabilities. In fact, the Working Group's recommendations demand a rights-based approach. Dr Karna says that they are pushing for education and training to be the key thrust of the 11th Five Year Plan. Over 50 per cent of PWDs are illiterate, and many who enrol in school are unable to complete their studies.

The Group has also recommended the formation of a separate ministry for disability; the creation of the National Commission for the Disabled and a mass campaign for the education of children with disabilities. It has proposed institutional responsibility in cases where the 1995 Persons With Disability Act is not implemented. Government officials, such as the District Magistrate, should monitor the implementation of this Act. They should be entrusted with powers to take necessary action against those who have failed to implement the various provisions of the Act.

Another area of concern is addressing rural needs—while most cities offer some kind of a rehabilitation mechanism for people with disabilities, in rural India the absence is stark and widespread. There is a shortage of devices such as prostheses, tricycles, wheelchairs, surgical footwear and tools for everyday activities, learning equipment such as Braille writing machines, dictaphones, CD players/tape recorders, low-vision aids, special mobility aids such as canes for the blind, hearing aids and educational kits. These need to be accessible to many more villagers whose lives and livelihood could well depend on them.

Further, the 11th Five Year Plan definitely needs to carefully consider the empowerment of women with disabilities. The planners will have to take concrete steps not only to rehabilitate abandoned women/girls with disabilities but also to impart training to help them earn a living.

The situation is indeed alarming. A lack of opportunity, coupled with the discriminatory attitude of Government bodies, private institutions and society, has created permanent barriers for disabled people. Very few schools admit children with disabilities, and even fewer make an effort to create an enabling environment for such children. In rural India, the crisis is deeper as social taboos, caste and poverty combine to make a disabled child more vulnerable.

There are several Government schemes and guarantees that can reduce the barriers and enable the disabled person to be part of the mainstream. However, poor or nil implementation has always been the root cause of failure in achieving any substantial goal. Government organisations fail to achieve the bare minimum—the stipulated three per cent job reservation for disabled people. Neither the higher education system nor the private sector is equipped and prepared to admit or hire disabled people. Most colleges don't even have buildings or trained personnel that welcome a student who has some kind of disability.

Again, the private sector also sees its role as "voluntary", not really proactively helping the disabled person access the best, but only delivering the minimum socially useful facilities. Sometimes, the private sector even supports the cause for personal publicity; for example, it considers it has fulfilled its corporate social responsibility if it constructs a ramp in an office or restaurant, although this is something mandatory by law under the Disability Act.

According to a study conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) and the National Association for the Blind (NAB), all sectors—public, private and the NGOs shut their doors to people with disabilities when it comes to giving them a job of dignity and reasonable emoluments. The 100 private companies studied during the research employed just over 3,000 disabled people—a mere 0.4 per cent of the total workforce. Twenty companies did not employ any disabled people. The 87 NGOs studied did not show a lot of promise either; as many as 50 per cent of those placed in the NGOs received less than Rs 1,000 a month.

The media has often reported about Government departments and organisations failing to give work to those who have qualified in competitions with a high score. So far, there has been very little progress in increasing the number of trained personnel or employment opportunities; improving access to public services; ensuring equal opportunities in sports, recreation and cultural activities and offering social security such as tax relief. In fact, the Government's welfare approach has prevented it from looking at persons with disabilities as part of a family or social system. Caregivers for the disabled people are equally vulnerable and also need a more secure support system.

It is a large group we are talking about here. It comprises over two per cent of our population. And if the planners do not take their welfare into consideration, it can certainly lead to a situation that can have serious repercussions.

The time to plan is now.

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