Saturday, January 22, 2011


AT the outset it has to be underlined that disability issues cannot be divorced from the objective conditions -- socio-economic and political realities -- existing at any particular point of time. Even while there is greater realisation among disabled persons themselves about their rights and comparatively more sensitivity, much of the discourse on disability issues tends to be divorced from objective socio-political realities.


In this context, while talking about disability issues, one thing that gets left out in the entire discourse within the disability rights movement in India and elsewhere is the effects of neo-liberalisation on the disabled. This question acquires more relevance when we talk about economic rehabilitation of the disabled.

The ideology of neo-liberalism portrays State intervention as an obstacle to economic growth. According to this ideology, State intervention breeds inefficiency and undermines the independence of the market. Therefore, the argument goes, government’s role and expenditures should be curtailed and be substituted by the private sector. These policies have led to privatisation of crucial sectors and services such as health, education etc. Needless to say that neo-liberalism has major implications for disabled persons, like other sections of society.

Disability, Economic Globalization and Privatization: A Case Study of India (Disability Studies Quartely)“Budget cuts in the post-reform period have also reduced government spending on disability programs. Between 1998 and 2003, the ministry of social justice and empowerment (MSJE), the nodal agency for promoting the welfare of disabled and other marginalised groups, accounted for only between five to seven per cent of total government spending, signifying the low priority placed by the government on core programs for people with disabilities (World Bank, 2007). Although funding for inclusive education under the education ministry has increased substantially in recent years, MSJE does not have consolidated figures for spending on disability across ministries. As such, a comprehensive picture about government spending on people with disabilities is lacking (World Bank, 2007). Budget cuts for social programs of the MSJE, however, have adversely affected non-governmental disability organisations that depended on government funding. NGOs have been encouraged by the government to seek philanthropic contributions from private wealthy donors and international aid organisations and by collecting fees from few elite clients who can afford to pay for services rather than receiving their funding from the central government.”

The National Policy for Persons with Disability 2006 also reflects this changed perception. The national policy envisages a further withdrawal of the State from its responsibility and increasing reliance on NGOs and mobilisation of resources from the private sector. This is reflected also in the Eleventh Plan document.

What are the costs and what are the implications of the current economic development for India's urban and rural disabled populations are yet not known. But one thing is for sure, poverty and destitution among the disabled and their caregivers has aggravated.

Though the Right to education has been enacted after much delay, sufficient resources are not provided to the states making it difficult for them to implement the provisions. Here also the disabled stand to lose.

The policy of disinvestment of the public sector and handing them over to private hands, as part of the neo-liberal framework, has shrunk the already low avenues of employment for persons with disabilities.

GN Karna succinctly puts it: “reduction in existing welfare provision and increasing diversity in the availability and cost of services have made it harder for the disabled to take part in societal activities”. (Disability Studies in India: Retrospects & Prospects)

The effects of liberalisation on the disabled sector is therefore one of the more important issues that we have to ponder and address in the present Indian context. It needs a deeper study.


Another more important and urgent requirement is to promote teaching and research in the field of disability studies. The ambiguities, discrepancies and contradictions in disability data and legislations are all due to the lack of a proper understanding about disabilities and persons with disabilities. Disability studies could play a vital role by sensitising the stakeholders as also policy makers. Basic understanding of disability, rehabilitation and human rights related issues must find place in the curricula at all levels -- schools, colleges and universities.

Another important issue concerns enumeration. While the NSSO, 2002 says that persons with disabilities constitute only 1.8 per cent of the population, the 2001 census puts the figure at 2.13 per cent. But the government's own XI Plan document disputes this figure and acknowledges that these are "underestimates". It has pegged the figure to be anywhere between five to six per cent of the total population. The methodology itself was faulty. Due to the intervention by the disability sector, in the 2011 census, the question with regard to disabilities is much more elaborate. But at the same time very little effort has been made to publicise this and sensitise people, which will also affect a correct enumeration.

Only 31.47 per cent of the disabled have been issued disability certificates. This is an admission made in the central government’s own annual report for the year 2009-10 – of the ministry of social justice and empowerment. The remaining 68.53 per cent do not possess such certificates. The demand for a universally acceptable ID card remains unfulfilled.

Instances of bribes being demanded for the issuance of disability certificates have been reported. Instances have come to light recently in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere of non-disabled persons procuring such certificates and jobs on the basis of such certificates.


Concerns have been raised over certain amendments to the Copyright Act 1957. The problematic areas concern the provision that permission for conversion of copyrighted material for use by disabled persons be granted only for conversion into “specialised formats”. This would mean that permission be granted only for Braille and sign language, effectively excluding a large part of the print disabled population who cannot read these formats, such as people with learning and physical disabilities. Even visually impaired persons are increasingly relying on electronic formats for reading and working and not on conventional reading formats such as Braille, which are also now available electronically. Hence the availability of electronic formats is indispensable for creation of accessible formats.

The other provision of permission from the copyright board is also not acceptable. The process of acquiring such permission is extremely cumbersome and time consuming. The time spent in obtaining permissions, coupled with the additional time required for creating the accessible version, would result in a big waiting period for a single book which would amount to the loss of an academic year for a child. The copyright board would also have the right to refuse permissions if the copyright holders object- this would mean denying the right to read a book to a specific group of persons, while the book is available to others in the printed form. This would be extremely discriminatory.

There are also stipulations that conversions can be carried out only by organisations which are primarily engaged with disability. In India, a vast amount of educational material is converted into electronic formats in universities and colleges.

These concerns have been taken up with the standing committee of the ministry of HRD to which the amendment bill has been referred to.


At present the ministry of social justice and empowerment is the nodal agency for the issues of the disabled. Since the issues of the disabled include education, health, employment, livelihood, etc. they have to be mainstreamed through special cells into the agendas of all ministries concerned with government schemes and projects like HRD, rural employment, other employment or self-employment schemes, urban development, etc. It is imperative that a separate department and ministry for disabilities affairs be created.

Disabled people have always been viewed and treated as different from other human beings. Society’s responses to disabled people’s needs and rights have been to separate or isolate them from their communities. Disability is seen as the embodiment of sin.

Deep and persistent negative stereotypes and prejudices against persons with disabilities continue to exist. The language used to refer to persons with disabilities and their negative portrayal in media plays a significant role in creating and maintaining negative stereotypes. The disabled continued to be dehumanised. Derogative terms such as “crippled” or “mentally retarded” continue to be used freely. The stigma attached to disability is so deep that parents are often forced to keep away their children from public view and interacting with society.

Impairment and disability are viewed similarly. Disability is born from the social response to impairments. Disability is the response of attitudinal and systemic discrimination, prejudice, stigma and fear to impairments.

This is how Leandro Despouy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Disability succinctly put it in the introduction of his report to the United Nations in 1993: “The treatment given to disabled persons defines the innermost characteristics of a society and highlights the cultural values that sustain it. It might appear elementary to point out that persons with disabilities are human beings – as human as, and usually even more human than, the rest.”

This recognition finds reflection in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that came into force in May 2008. The UNCRPD views disability as the result of the interaction between a person and his/her environment, that disability is something that resides in the individual as the result of some impairment.

While legislation attempting to set right the inequalities in the status of women, ethnic groups, minorities and children have been enacted over a period of time, the subordinate status of disabled people, their inequality and the injustice meted out to them has been recognised only recently. Despite theoretically being entitled to all human rights, persons with disabilities, are in practice, denied all those basic rights and fundamental freedoms that most people take for granted. “Disability, surely, is a disadvantage for the individuals who endure it. But, it is also a bigger disadvantage as well as a challenge for the larger society in any part of the world, which has so far not been able to offer an ideal platform in many parts of the globe to persons with disabilities” (Disability Development in India, Dr J P Singh & Dr Manoj K Dash)

After much delay the government finally agreed to draft a new law to replace the current Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 to bring it in consonance with the UNCRPD. We hope the differences in the sector on some issues pertaining to the drafting of the new law will be amicably sorted out soon and we shall have a new law reflecting the aspirations of the disability sector and very much in harmony with the UNCRPD.

The conditions of the disabled or their advancement cannot be seen in isolation. Their advancement is crucially linked to the advance of the democratic movement and society in general. It is incumbent upon the general democratic movement to raise the issues of the disabled and reflect their concerns and aspirations. “Equal opportunities for any disabled person will not come just by giving some facilities like education, rehabilitation, barrier free access and employment. Rather these should be perceived as some of the steps that are necessary to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect between the persons with disabilities and the society.” (ibid)

(Extracts from a paper submitted at the Rehabilitation Council of India Congress at Kolkata, January 7-9, 2011)