World Disability Day: December 3

The disabled are often called the most ignored minority.

2011 Census reports indicate that there are about 2.68 crore disabled people in India–2.21% of the population. But NGOs and others who work in this field feel that this is too conservative an estimate. According to them, the figure is more like 5-8% of the population.  World Bank data suggests the number is between 4 and 8 crore. And this is expected to increase steeply, as age-related disabilities grow and traffic accidents increase.

The most tragic part of this is that many of the disabilities in our country are preventable. A large number of mental and physical disabilities arise from lack of nutrition and proper health care for pregnant mothers and young children. Many irreversible disabilities are linked to poor nutrition of the mother—e.g., anemic conditions. Similarly deficiency of Vit. A in childhood may lead to blindness; deficiency of iodine may lead to mental retardation. Similarly, immunization coverage and disabilities are clearly correlated.

If infants and the very young are vulnerable, so are the old. Over 23% of visual impairment in India is due to cataract—a normal phenomenon associated with aging, and one which is correctable. But thousands in our country live without vision because they cannot access or afford the simple surgery required.

Other statistics which should disturb us: Close to 40% of school age children with disabilities are not in school. If the children do not go to school, they can never hope to be employable. This feeds the poverty-disability cycle.

In India, figures indicate that the number of disabled in employment actually fell between 1991 and 2002! Though there is legislation for 3% reservation in government sector, this is seldom fulfilled. And how can it ever be, if the disabled don’t get an education? If public transport and offices are not accessible to the disabled? If our own attitudes prevent us from employing the disabled?

On paper we have laws and policies for inclusivity in education, for reservation in jobs, for access to public spaces, etc., etc. But on the ground, there is little happening. The first barrier is in our minds—if we can truly accept that there are no ‘disabilities’, only ‘different abilities’, we may be able to see our way to building a more inclusive society. Just as I can’t sing, there are some who cannot speak! Just as I can’t dance, there are some who cannot walk! I don’t think of myself as any the less because of these lacks. Why then should I think of people who cannot speak or walk as different?

We need to translate attitude to action: Check if your child’s school has a policy for inclusive education, and if there are indeed differently-abled children. If not, gently bring it up in the next PTA meeting. Encourage your ward’s school or college to have traffic education sessions. Ensure that your own ward does not break traffic rules. Check your organization’s employment policy to see if there is anything about employing differently-abled people. If not, lobby for it! Spread the message for proper nutrition and immunization for pregnant women and young mothers. Support cataract operations through service organizations. Write to the managers of public spaces if they do not provide disability access.

Each of us may take a different route. But go on, make a resolve to make small difference on the 3rd of December!

–Meena

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