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Equal rights

Murali Krishnan, New DelhiFebruary 26, 2014

Disabled rights groups in India are demanding a new law that guarantees civil and political rights to disabled people. They also want the government to expand the definition of disability.

Behinderte Protest in Indien
Image: DW/M. Krishnan

Shivani Gupta, an accessibility consultant, is tetraplegic and relies on a wheel chair to get around. Gupta's spine was shattered in a car crash over two decades ago and it has taken a strong resolve to not only demand and receive respect from the world but to simply gain acceptance.

Despite the severe setback fate had dealt her, Gupta soldiers on, choosing to champion the cause of the disabled.

"Disability is not a charity issue. It is a developmental concern and unfortunately it does not figure in the government's scheme of things and that is really unfortunate," she told DW.

Empowerment and inclusion

It is a matter that agitates a vast mast majority of people with mental and physical disabilities in India who face discrimination and stigma on a daily basis. They have been campaigning for a new disability rights bill which will have a bearing on their lives.

According to government data on disability from the year 2011, there are over 26 million disabled people in India, whose population has increased by over 22 percent over the past decade. Activists place the figure at anywhere between 60 and 70 million people.

Disabled people protesting in New Delhi demanding that the Disability Bill be passed in parliament demanding more rights
Activists had hoped that the bill would pass in the past session of parliamentImage: DW/M. Krishnan

"We are asking for disabled people to be treated as equal citizens, without charitable tokenisms. The fight is for greater recognition," Javed Abidi, convener of the disability rights group told DW. Abidi was born with a condition called Spina bifida. He has had to use a wheelchair since the age of 15.

Not just a medical problem

The eagerly awaited bill, which is still pending in parliament, seeks to expand the definition of disability from the current seven categories to 19 to include sickle cell disease, thalassemia and muscular dystrophy besides autism spectrum disorder, blindness, cerebral palsy, chronic neurological conditions and mental illness.

In addition, the bill seeks to increase jobs for disabled persons in the public sector from the current 3 to 5 percent and reserve seats for them in higher educational institutions. Furthermore, it will also require all recognized educational institutions to be inclusive and provide reasonable accommodation. Though the campaigners had hoped the bill would be passed in this past session of parliament, if failed to do so. Now it is unclear how long they will have to wait, but it is expected they will have to rely on the next government after May elections.

If the bill is passed, the national disability commission will be expected not just to draw up guidelines but also have the powers to enforce them and levy hefty fines for those violating the new deal.

"We want the government's understanding of disability to evolve. It is no more the focus on impairments of the body and mind but to the social model of recognition and empowerment," argues Pratap Kumar, a college student.

For disabled people, having an accessible environment is still a neglected issue in even the big metro stations throughout the country. Many remain thus confined to their homes.

"Attempts to enter parks, buildings, or to be able to travel remains a far cry. Barrier-free environment is a legal right of disabled people and it is important to bring attitudinal changes among policy makers in government and also among architects and design professionals," adds Gupta.

India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in October 2007. The convention marked a formal shift from the archaic medical model to the social model, and promotes the rights of people living with disabilities.

Whether the new law reflects the aspirations of this minority population is up for debate. They continue to wait.

Shivani Gupta at home in a wheelchair
Shivani Gupta believes disabled people do not figure in the government's developmental planImage: DW/M. Krishnan