Mapu Jamir IAS (Retd)
James Sangwa (name changed), an educated young man has to think several times before going to government offices, Sunday church service or to attend a seminar/ functions and hospitals. A visit to the market is out of the question. James is orthopaedically disabled and for people like him most places in the state of Nagaland are simply inaccessible. For him going to public places in a wheel chair is a nightmare and a visit to the toilet is a herculean task.
Accessibility is of paramount importance to Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) for ensuring that their basic rights are not violated. Right of communicating and co-mingling are inherently given upon them by the Indian constitution. But how does a blind person negotiate the traffic if there are no auditory signals? Or for that matter, how do orthopaedically handicapped persons using wheel chairs enter public buildings which do not have ramps?
Even today there exist no special provisions for the social development of disabled persons. Earlier, such persons were regarded as unproductive and useless eaters in society. The constitution has provided for social security of the disabled in Article 41 of the constitution. Today, of course, there is the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 which promise a barrier-free environment for the disabled and the elderly, yet there seems to be little sensitivity to their needs. It is the law of the land but what are we doing about it? How many places have been made accessible to the disabled in the last four years. The question is really not of resources but of awareness and sensitivity of the concerned authorities. PWD Engineers and the architecture Engineers need to be sensitised on the need to design disabled friendly buildings.
In the past handicapped persons did not have any common platform to voice their grievances from. Today, they are not alone. Government as well as various NGOS has taken up their cause. The RPWD Act of 2016 covers a wide range of rights for them-from prevention of disabilities and protection of rights to providing medical care, education, training, employment and rehabilitation of disabled persons. It is also true that laws grow with society, its economic development, scientific progress and attitude of the people. However, it is more important to lay emphasis on ability rather than disability, independence over dependence and integration over segregation.
Further, think of the transport system in Nagaland. For PWDs, to board Nagaland State Transport Buses is a big no. Think of the railway station in Dimapur. It is a gigantic task for a PWDs to travel by train from Dimapur railway station. Dimapur airport is the only station having friendly infrastructure and provision for PWDs to travel.
These are just physical barriers. Much more difficult to negotiate are the attitudinal barriers which the PWDs come across in their daily lives. To make the People with Disability Act workable a host of enforcement actions need to be done. First, we need an enforcement agency especially those concerning placement of disabled children in educational institutions where a minimum of 3% of seats be kept reserved for handicapped children. Further, we need school for blind children, deaf and dumb school, school for spastic, autism, etc.
The Act is an enabling law which helps the PWDs to get jobs. There are many disabled young persons who are considered employable. But 99% of the PWDs are unemployed. Insensitivity and lack of recognition of their abilities are the biggest impediment in the improvement of their lot. How can they, then live with dignity when they are financially dependent on others for their smallest needs?
A large percentage of the PWDs can become as independent as any other human being can be, provided they get opportunities, proper guidance, training and a warm and caring atmosphere. The training programme should be formulated keeping their abilities in mind. As such the learner should be allowed some lee way in the learning process. What happens when toddlers start learning to stand up and walk? They fall but the parents encourage them and after months of stumbling, they manage to do it. Why cannot the PWDs be taught in the same manner with love and care? Apart from government services they too can be gainfully self employed and can even become good entrepreneurs. Government too can come forward by setting up of the State Handicapped Finance Development Corporation for giving soft loans to the PWDs. A screening committee of experts may finalise the cases depending on the abilities and the categories of disabilities.
Overcoming the insensitivity towards the PWDs is such a gigantic task and hence the Act has provided us teeth to enforce the existing laws much more authoritatively. Of course, there are others who think they can get away with anything and therefore, they need to be told a home truth or two. Additionally, District Medical Board needs to be strengthened to certify disability and a committee to identify jobs for handicapped persons according to their skills. State government has designated Session Court in each district as Special Court for redressal of offences committed against disabled persons. Public Prosecutors are designated as Special Prosecutors to conduct cases.
A lot has been done, but a lot more has yet to be done. Transformation of social practices takes time. Those working for the disabled will need patience, perseverance and also need to become more organised and multiply their efficacy through intelligent lobbying and educating the people. A negative mindset exists in our society towards the PWDs. This was shaped over several centuries. It would be unrealistic to expect people to change all that overnight.
The creation of awareness about the PWDs, their needs, difficulties and aspirations must be an uninterrupted process and must continue till it fulfills its purpose. For this the NGOS and the government have to work jointly and apolitically to voice and establish the rights of the PWDs.