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( By Ali Baquer; Anjali Sharma )

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a-Equal Opportunities For All

History of Neglect :

In all countries of the world, people with disabilities are the largest minority group. As a group they are starved of services and facilities available to the non-disabled and, consequently, are the least nourished, the least healthy, the least educated, the least employed. They are subjected to a long history of neglect, isolation, segregation, poverty, deprivation, charity and even pity.

The plight of the disabled in India is not dramatically different. The immense responsibility for the care of the disabled is generally left to their families and a few institutions managed by voluntary organisations and government. Since the disabled, as yet, do not have any economic or political or media power in India, they tend to be mostly ignored by society.

Multiple Deprivations :

This deliberate and calculated indifference of society is reflected in all facets of the lives of the disabled–from cradle to grave. The educational, social, health, transport and residential arrangements made by local, State, Central governments or voluntary organisations frequently fall short of the total demand for them. They are also uncoordinated and irrelevant to the actual needs. Such approaches, either out of a profound lack of understanding or sheer callousness, are designed to promote dependence, charity and segregation of the disabled instead of independence, dignity, self-respect and integration.

These common practices reinforce the traditional and misguided stereotypes that continue to project people with disabilities as deserving pity, alms and charity. The prejudices against the disabled and ignorance about their potential get institutionalised and are inevitably reflected in policy making, resource allocation, service provision and the status accorded to them.

Barriers :

Disability, however, is a human rights issue and it must be clearly realised by all that the disabled are an integral part of society and every effort must be made to involve them with the whole society. People with impairment feel disabled not because of their physical and/or mental handicaps but because of the barriers society chooses to put up to establish differences between the disabled and non-disabled. These barriers fall in three broad categories :

  1. Environmental Barriers :
    These are inaccessible public and private buildings, schools, colleges, offices, factories, shops, transport, information, communication system. These shut the disabled out or keep reminding them of their alleged shortcomings and shouting at them that you are not welcome.

  2. Institutional Barriers :
    These include expulsion, exclusion and segregation from key social institutions including education, employment, health, law, recreation, etc. Direct and indirect discrimination against the disabled prevents them from taking full advantage of these provisions.

  3. Attitudinal Barriers :
    The non-disabled, all over the world, view and treat the disabled with prejudice and, in varying degrees, regard them as incapable, inadequate, resentful, bitter, pathetic, tragic, pitiable, abusive, aggressive, immoral, criminal, unhealthy, dependent on charity, costly for society to support, drain on family resources, inferior, unemployable, etc.

Dignity and Independence :

These barriers, as well as many others, are the result of prejudice born out of ignorance and misconceptions. It is imperative that steps be taken to remove such barriers and eradicate widespread discrimination against men and women, children and adults suffering form physical and mental impairments. The disabled must also be offered wider and just opportunities to live independently in society with dignity and freedom to contribute to the richness of society in accordance with their skills and talents.

Demand for Participation :

The disabled, like the non-disabled, expect full and active participation in all activities of their lives. Such participation can only become a reality if society removes these age-old barriers and the accessibility of the disabled to education, training and employment increases in a susbstantial measure. The lawmakers, and those implementing policies, must realise that people with disabilities want, deserve and are entitled to the same range of choices and lifestyles as the non-disabled. They should not be expected to live on crumbs of benefits thrown at them. The disabled deserve neither to be thrown in dustbins of society nor put on pedestals. They want to be treated as ordinary people, which they actually are if seen without prejudice.

Self-advocacy :

Nothing substantial and of lasting value can be achieved without actively involving the disabled in their own struggle for equality, self-respect and independence. They, and all those who believe in creating a just society free from exploitation, must support efforts aimed at achieving equal rights for all, for the disabled as well as the non-disabled. The people with impairments must be encouraged to gain full control of their lives, their environment, their society. They must have the right to decide what they themselves want because the non-disabled, no matter how sensitive and fair-minded, can not really understand the feelings of the disabled.

The participation of the disabled in taking charge of shaping their own lives would help to shift the focus from individual impairments to real problems confronting them i.e. the discriminating attitude of the society against them.

Purposeful Partnership :

The disabled, in partnership with the non-disabled, shall together remove the obstacles and barriers that history has put in front of them. Only through such collective and sustained efforts society would be able to minimise, and ultimately eliminate prejudice and discrimination that have become daily occurrences.

The rest of society, like the disabled, must realise that the real issue is not of rehabilitation but of equal rights and entitlements. The disabled in several countries of the world are now convinced that a new beginning has already been made in bringing all disabilities under one banner and a new consciousness amongst them is emerging that they all have a common purpose, a common identity and a common mission. They do not perceive themselves as separate and isolated individuals, each with physical or sensory or mental handicap in need of charitable care, but as people with capacities to contribute to society in which they live.

Experience as a Binding Factor :

The disabled have at last realised that all people with impairments, in all countries and cultures of the world, have one experience in common, an experience that stares at them constantly, hurts them relentlessly. This single common experience, cutting across geographical, political and cultural boundaries, is Discrimination. This realisation must give each one of them the courage to challenge the prejudice of society and demolish the image that they are dependent and pitiable.

In a growing number of countries across the globe the disabled do not want to have such a damaging image any more. They have started to demand their rights so that they could contribute to society in every possible way. They have been pigeon-holed by history for far too long as blind or deaf or mentally retarded or mute or by any number of other labels used to marginalise people who are not wanted. But, times have started to change. The opportunity for the disabled to get united and become a potent force has arrived.

Breakthrough in Legislation :

This courageous and collective struggle, fought by people with diverse disabilities representing an assortment of causes, has been wholeheartedly supported by the non-disabled friends and visionaries, policymakers and professionals. The struggle has helped the disabled get the ‘Persons with Disabilities (Equal opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Bill, 1995 passed in India. The Indian Act is a comprehensive and far-reaching legislation with promise of liberating mankind of its prejudices and of removing barriers that have crippled the disabled for centuries.

The Indian Act has opened doors to people with disabilities so that they can, individually and collectively, become an integral part of the mainstream. The Indian Act guarantees full equality, independence and freedom to all people with disabilities. This law has given confidence to the disabled that this glorious example will be followed in other countries. Most people do, however, realise that the Indian Act is not a solution to the intricate and complex problems of the disabled but, they also know that the Indian Act is definitely a beginning in finding lasting and practical solutions.

The pursuit of social justice and equal opportunities should become more vigorous so that all, irrespective of their disabilities, lifestyles and potential could be treated equally and fairly.