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Inclusion matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities


International Day of Persons with Disabilities – 3 December

Theme for 2015: Inclusion matters: access and empowerment of people of all abilities


Jayati Gupta
03 December, 2015



Since 1992 under the aegis of the United Nations, 3 December is assigned as the International Day of Persons With Disabilities or World Disability Day. Each year has a specific theme and in 2015 the announced theme is “ Inclusion Matters: Access and Empowerment of People with All Abilities”.

Inclusion obviously matters going by the World Bank’s demographic statistics; 15 per cent of the world’s population or at least 1 billion people live with some form of disability and almost 110-190 million suffer from significant disabilities. Almost 80 per cent of this global population of persons with disabilities live in emergent counties of which India is one. Excluding such a large segment of citizens from social interaction borders on an extreme form of discrimination that affects their basic human rights.

In 2007 a World Bank report indicated that India has one of the most progressive disability policy frameworks in the developing world -what with acts such as the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, but implementation is poor. Therefore today, even 20 years after the Act, the status of the disabled has not improved dramatically. According to the 2011 Census, the disabled in India are placed at a conservative 2.21 per cent of the total population. Making provision for unreported cases, the Planning Commission places the figure at 5 per cent and disability sectors at 4-8 per cent. According to the census report, a larger concentration of the disabled live in rural areas. So when we talk of inclusion, we are actually looking at sizeable numbers of persons who would otherwise remain marginalised and outside the social, economic, educational, health infrastructures and opportunities available to other citizens of the country and to citizens who live in urban areas.

The key word is of course “access” which is synonymous with removal of barriers. The visible and invisible barriers encountered by the disabled in everyday situations are innumerable, but one could broadly refer to various categories of obstacles in the everyday physical environment, in accessibility to information or communication, and in handling attitudinal hurdles.

Despite the accessibility audit that is considered mandatory for government buildings and preferable for other public and private institutions most of our public buildings still lack minimum infrastructural facilities like ramps, elevators and Braille enabled elevator buttons. Though the Reserve Bank of India has instructed banks to facilitate wheelchair access to banks and ATMs many banks have not yet implemented the recommendation. I had to recently close my account at a nationalised bank as it was on the first floor, with no parking facilities and with no provision for rectifying the lack, though the bank underwent massive cosmetic changes to ‘modernise’ the branch. In older shopping complexes, ramps are still missing, though space is not always a problem. In the newer ones, it is assumed that ramps are unlikely to be used, so easy access to these are barred for security reasons. And where are the functional wheelchairs that need to be parked close to the alighting areas and ramps? The shopping malls are disabled-unfriendly -visibility of disabled in such ‘ urbanised’ spaces is therefore minimal. With highly polished, plush corridors that house the shops around them or on either side, there are no Braille indicators on the floor to mark any entrances, exits, even directions. The sheer lack of awareness about simple things that can act as markers of inclusiveness in society is absolutely amazing.

Look at all the mushrooming clinics and diagnostic centres. Several of these are not equipped to handle patients who are perhaps not permanently disabled, but are temporarily incapacitated. One such clinic that I visited had the laboratories in accessible areas but the doctor’s consulting rooms were up a flight of stairs with no ramp and no elevator! Most hospitals and clinics are equipped with wheel chairs for patients to be wheeled in but it is unheard of that a patient should actually be accompanied by an orthopaedically disabled companion. If one is not the patient, one may be disabled, but nevertheless needs to stand in the usual long queues, be jostled from one counter to the next, make one’s way through pushy crowds, all to check in the patient one is accompanying for the doctor’s appointment in the Out Patient’s Department.

Literally, accessibility is about mobility and reaching physical destinations. Our public transport system, buses and trains, bus-stops and platforms are in such abysmal state of disarray that every commuter faces a daily ordeal. Therefore, it is not only about buildings and malls, exhibition grounds and galleries, other public spaces and even housing complexes being accessible. The basic amenities that are to do with roads, train stations and daily commuting facilities, are by and large not user-friendly and are positively inaccessible to the disabled. So mobility is hampered not only in cases of orthopaedic problems but also for the visually impaired. Our everyday social infrastructure is interdependent.

Much of what is termed inclusion depends on having access to schools and education, information and communication. To participate in society on an equal basis, and not to be vulnerable to charity, disabled persons need to equip themselves adequately. Social and economic empowerment is the correct move towards self-sufficiency and self-dignity that disabled persons can aspire to. If the enabling features like transport, health-care and education remain out of reach, the goal of inclusion cannot be achieved. An ongoing campaign for change in these physical parameters that create situations of inaccessibility could create an enabling environment for disabled persons who are by default excluded from mainstream activities.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is usually commemorated globally through seminars, conferences, discussions, cultural programmes involving talented disabled performers. Organisations and governments announce several schemes, create blueprints for the integrated socio-economic empowerment of the disabled, the day brings big promises and renewed hope. Yet, if the announced schemes and development guidelines are not regularly implemented and followed up, change is likely to remain elusive.

Such commemorative events should be a time of honest reckoning of the work done and the path that remains to be traversed. In India the most difficult barrier to be removed is that of entrenched attitudes towards all categories of disability, physical and mental, that leads to discrimination and injustice. Creating awareness in society that persons with disabilities must be given a fair chance to fulfil their roles in society can lead to inclusiveness. Every disabled individual has multiple abilities and it is the role of education and society to enable one to nurture those skills. Disability needs to be seen as an integral part of the human condition -age, accident, disease, congenital conditions, hereditary trends, trauma and shock -can cause some form of mental or physical transformation. This year’s theme draws attention to this all inclusive concept by calling on empowerment for ‘people with all abilities’. In India the day needs to reiterate the twin agenda of creating awareness of disability that can generate positive action that translates into an inclusive socio-economic environment. Let the UN slogan for 2015 become a motivation for perceptible change around us.


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