Guest Post by TONY KURIAN
Amidst the noisy campaigns of “Make In India and Digital India”, a campaign called “Accessible India” was launched by the Central Government recently and unsurprisingly this did not catch much media attention. Department of Persons with Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment has launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan), as a nation-wide flagship campaign for achieving universal accessibility for Persons with Disabilities.
The campaign is an extremely welcome initiative in a country like India which is home to more than 2.1 million officiallyrecognized disabled and a lot more who are not counted by the decadal exercise of census. While the campaign disserves much appreciation, it offers an appropriate opportunity for us to rethink some of our common sense, or at least that of majority about disability and disabled.
The campaign which is in the spirit of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and in sync with Incheon strategy, attempts to ensure access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications for persons with disability. The campaign based on specific objectives and targets attempts to enhance the proportion of accessible government buildings, airports, public transport, railway stations and public documents, enhance the pool of sign language interpreters, and making public broadcasting programmes more accessible. The campaign reportedly have incentive mechanisms to attract private sector to make their premise accessible and provide more employment opportunity for Persons with Disability. The campaign attempt to bridge the accessibility deficit in a number of areas and if implemented rightly, this itself will be a significant step.
In India where accessibility has largely been ignored while conceiving public policy, Accessible India campaign is a new hope for persons with disability who’s daily life can be largely improved due to this initiative. To have equal access in physical and virtual space is a basic right and for this scattered minority of our country, this policy is a dream come true.
While acknowledging the perceived benefits of Accessible India campaign, what merits a rethink is the discourse which has dominated our common sense about disabled and disability. There exists a kind of asocial thinking about disabled and a narrative in which accessibility is seen as the only required step to create an inclusive society for disabled. This thinking misses multiple nuances of being a disabled and forecloses many possible areas of conversation about inclusivity.
We often think about persons with disability as a group with one identity, removing them from the multiple socio-economic backgrounds they come from. For example, to talk about a Dalit blind person or a rural, below poverty line woman with cerebral palsy is still an anathema in India. In actuality, it is these multiple vector of marginalities that makes the experience of being disabled unique for each person with disability. To acknowledge the difference within the disabled community is also to acknowledge the multiple deprivation faced by some.
Many efforts from an asocial perspective aimed at persons with disability often do not yield the indented results. Braille signboards and ramps will not be able to attract students with disability to a school if it is not accompanied with policies targeting the relevant socio-economic marginalization. Many disabled complain that smart technologies developed for persons with disabilities often have an urban bias and is obsolete in rural conditions. At the heart of many of such technology initiatives is the assumption of an asocial disabled and a further assumption that technology will yield same results despite of differences in socio-economic context in which they are employed.
A much celebrated dominant thinking about disability is that accessibility alone can create an inclusive society. Basic belief underlying such a thought is that technology coupled with some sensitisation and politically correct language can alone create an inclusive society for the disabled. This view being often translated in to policy making,ignores the multiple experience of being a disabled. There are many and I only highlight a couple of them.
The domain of politics has been largely beyond the reach of disabled in our country. While no parties formally restricts disabled from being their members, their outreach towards this community is abysmal. When persons with disability are encouraged to be in politics, they transform themselves from the status of beneficiary of social policy to being the active agents in the formulation of policies. An example for the positive results of such a move was evident during the stint of Lenin Moreno as the former vice president of Ecuador. A disabled himself, Moreno’s policies had a positive impact on disabled community in the country and instilled a new wave of confidence in them. some political parties have initiated welcome efforts to reach out to Persons with Disability, but as a society We still shy away from viewing disabled as potential politicians. As a result we have had only a very few representatives who identify themselves as disabled.
Moving from the public realm of politics to the intimate space of sexuality, we find a social silence on the topic of disability and sexuality. Disabled are treated as either asexual or hyper sexual. This means that people with disability are either sexually vulnerable or find their sexuality being not accepted by society. The larger point is that Persons with Disability are not perceived as potential sexual partners, and sexuality and disability remains largely as a taboo.
Initiatives such as Accessible India can make a difference to an otherwise lugubrious situation for Persons with Disability of our country. In our pursuit of an inclusive society, we ought to acknowledge the differences within the disabled community. As a society we need to initiate open and honest conversations about areas that constitute the experience of being disabled. For sure, many of these realms cannot be translated in to specific targets and measureable indicators. Yet opening ourselves to such conversations can be a good starting point. The idea that technology and accessibility by itself can create an inclusive society is only a myth that we need to open to scrutiny from a wider perspective.
Tony Kurian is a research scholar at Centre for Studies in Social Science, Kolkata.