The article is originally published in The New Leader
Imagine this. A middle-aged woman is struggling to get into a bus. The bus stop is extremely crowded. She has been touched by several people while being part of the crowd. Some push her hard. So much so that she gets displaced from her place several times. She has been requesting people for help. She wants to go to a hospital for a routine check-up. But in the mad race of catching the bus, people do not notice her requests. All they could do is to push her away the way someone likes.
Her voice gets subdued in the constant honking of horns. Many even called her names, as she was standing in their way without realising that the woman was holding a stick and was, perhaps, not able to see. Finally, a college student helps her in boarding the bus. But the student leaves as he has to board another bus. Do you think this woman will get down at the right stop? Will she reach the hospital? Even if she is able to reach the hospital, will she be treated well? Will she be able to contact the doctor concerned?
The scene has raised a number of questions that we may not even think of during the normal course of our life. Perhaps, we may also behave like the same crowd. Unless, this scene is shown as part of a TV show. Even then, the audience may feel pity for the woman. These feelings may change instantly when a different serial/scene is shown.
Last month, a report published by Ola Mobility Institute threw some light on the challenges that a person with disabilities (PwDs) usually faces. The biggest issue is that we as a country do not have concrete data on the exact number of the disabled. In fact, man is born with multiple disabilities, overcomes them only to get back the same disabilities in his old age. That is why Shakespeare said, “from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot”
The Census 2011 showed that we had only 26.8 million PwDs. However, the actual number seems to be many times higher. The government had listed only seven types of disability at that time. Thereafter, it enacted the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act which recognised 21 types of disabilities. Simply put, many who were excluded in the Census 2011, too, would be covered under the definition.
The global estimates tell a different story altogether. For instance, the United Nations estimates that 15 percent of people live with some kind of disability. By this proportion, more than 180 million people can be assumed to be suffering from one or more disabilities in India. In other words, our policy makers do not even know the gravity of the problem. So how can we expect them to allocate an adequate budget? Or design appropriate policies for meeting their requirements?
Be that as it may, the report shares the difficulties PwDs faced during the pandemic while travelling from one place to another in urban set-ups. Just like the imaginary woman mentioned at the beginning of this article, the report reveals that women with disabilities often face harassment, physical, mental and sexual, in the garb of offering assistance. Unlike non-disabled women, they do not have the ability to raise their voice or escape from the situation.
Generally, PwDs face major problems while boarding and getting down from a local transport. In fact, social distancing norms made their task tougher as they found it difficult to seek help. People were not willing to talk for fear of getting exposed to the virus. It was challenging for them to know the number of the bus at the stop. Even if someone helped, it was an uphill task to board it as the buses operated with a much lesser capacity. The drivers were given specific instructions not to allow even one passenger more than the prescribed limit. Clearly, it was hard for them to find a seat. People were not as forthcoming as they were in the pre-pandemic period.
People suffering from hearing loss found it difficult to understand the support staff available in public transport facilities. Masks affected their voice. No one would have imagined that covid protocols would have made their lives much more complex than those of the normal human beings. Even before the pandemic, we were indifferent to PwDs. But the pandemic multiplied their problems.
Another study published by the Indian Institute of Public Health last year mentioned that 42.5 percent of the PwDs faced difficulties in accessing routine healthcare facilities. The period of isolation, abandonment and violence deteriorated their mental health as 81 per cent of the respondents reported to have experienced severe stress levels during the lockdown. About 58 per cent PwDs could not even get their blood pressure monitored, which is a basic service! One can imagine what would have happened to those who needed surgical treatment or rehabilitation services.
Despite the fact that the Modi government started the accessible India campaign in December 2015, it has lagged behind in achieving the desired targets within the set timelines. The campaign had set an ambitious target of conducting accessibility audits of all international airports, railway stations, government-owned public carriers and converting them into disabled-friendly accessible infrastructure by March 2018. However, the deadline was extended till March 2020. The pandemic has certainly affected the progress on this project as well. We are yet to achieve the desired outcome.
We as a country started recognising the rights of the PwDs way back in the 1970s. Yet, we are way behind our goal of giving them equal rights and sensitising the people about their requirements. We have dealt with PwDs with apathy all these years. We have many legislations and policies that guarantee them equal rights but when it comes to implementation, we do not see much on the ground. It is a usual sight to find seats reserved for PwDs in public transport systems being used by the general public.
And when we speak of rights, we often look inside. It is normal for all of us to think only about oneself or at best about the people one cares the most about. This is true not only for the general public but also for the policy makers. Rarely do they place themselves in the shoes of those, whose rights they pretend to protect.
With such a tendency, it is certainly difficult for the policy makers to design policies and procedures based on what they feel about a particular issue or a set of people. This is one reason why very little is seen on the ground. Half-baked plans coupled with a half-hearted approach can certainly not bring a change.
The Ola Mobility Institute report has made a set of recommendations. It was released by none other than Ramdas Athawale, the minister who leads the ministry of state for social justice and empowerment. His foreword does mention that the report will be of great use to policy makers for understanding their concerns. We can only hope that this does not remain a mere rhetoric. To begin with, we need the exact data on disability to create adequate provision in the budget for supporting them in every way possible.
Forget the government for a moment. As we celebrate the international day of the disabled, let us resolve to think beyond attending seminars, workshops or webinars. It is time for each one of us to develop some sensitivity towards them. Let us resolve that the woman in this article will be helped and supported in not only boarding a bus but also availing of other facilities.
After all, everyone in this world will face some kind of disability in one form or the other, be it from a disease or an accident or old age!
The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org