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Empowering Divyangjan

Friday, 28 October 2016 | Archana Jyoti | in Oped

The Modi Government has taken many measures to assist the differently-abled. Now it must adopt a robust legislation

Since the last two years, the Government is going full throttle in distributing aids and assistive devices such as Braille kits, sewing machines, hearing aids and smart canes to the differently-abled people at various camps that are being organised on a mega scale from time to time across the country. According to an estimate, over 1,800 such camps have been held across the States since the Modi Government came to power, with the recent one being in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, and Navsari and Vadodara in Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave away the kits to the needy at free of cost.

The camps are being conducted by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan), Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and organised by the Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India (ALIMCO). The number of camps is far greater than the number in the case of previous Governments, Modi said at Varanasi.

No doubt, such events provide visibility and transparency at a high level. They also fetch political mileage to the ruling party. Also, the term ‘Divyangjan', coined by the Prime Minister for the differently-abled people, has sent a message among the beneficiaries that their interests are being taken care at a higher level. Though the word has drawn varied response, those in favour, like Delhi-based Rajinder Johar, a quadriplegic who has been bed-ridden for the last 32 years, feel the word 'Divyanjan' gives the feeling of dignity and respect.

Another positive step that needs to be mentioned is the coming up of institutions like the Indian Sign Language Interpretation, and transformation of the  Kerala-based National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH) into the National University for Rehabilitation Sciences and Disability Studies, for the benefit of the disabled. The launch of a National Action Plan for Skill Training of Persons With Disabilities, wherein  within next three years, five lakh people with disability will be skill-trained, is a welcome gesture.

However, all such steps will be seen as half-hearted if they are not backed by adequate legislation. After all, the sector does not need any charity but wants its rights. Sadly, there is no movement on the proposed Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014, which seeks to replace the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

The new Bill reflects the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has been hailed by the beneficiaries as well as activists in the sector. However, attempts are being made to dilute the Bill, which is under the consideration of a Group of Ministers (GoM ) headed by Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh. Other members are Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi and Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot.

While across the world, mental illness is considered as a disability, the accepted term to describe the set of ailments is ‘psycho-social disabilities'. The GoM has recommended that mental illness is a disease and not a disability — and hence be dealt with by the Union Ministry of Health.

This has hugely upset the activists in the sector, with some like Amba Salelkar of Equals: Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, launching a viral photo campaign called, ‘We Can Work', speaking loud that  mentally-ill people like schizophrenics too can be successfully employed, if given chance.

The Government also seems to be reluctant to expand the reservation percentage from the existing three per cent to five per cent. Its contention is that there are not many qualified people in the sector to take the job. However, what it is not realising is that such posts would encourage more differently-abled to come forward to get trained for it.

Johar, a recipient of the President's medal, and who, through his NGO, Family of Disabled, has been providing employment to differently-abled people, stresses not only on skill development but also measures to open up job avenues for them. He suggests accessibility and scholarship to begin with, to bring the beneficiaries out of the four walls of their homes.

The implementation of the Bill, which also makes accessibility a mandatory requirement under the law, is like a ray of hope for the sector. This would only strengthen the Government's Accessibility Campaign launched last year, aiming to make the society inclusive and infrastructures friendly.

The Bill also addresses the issue of enhanced penalty for outraging the modesty of a woman with disability and termination of pregnancy after the consent of a guardian and medical practitioners. Making a strong case for the Bill in its present format, well-known disabled rights activist Javed Abidi feels that punitive measures and fear factor will make things work. Another clause which the Government seems to be reluctant to implement is a proposal to set up a national commission of disabilities. Clearly, it doesn't want to see one more panel coming up that would dictate terms  in case the Government falters.

The Government must understand that what is more important is that once we have tight and firm law, more rights and entitlements and more categories of disabilities will be recognised. There will be more chances of enforcement of their rights. So therefore the more delay we have for the Bill, more such rights and entitlements will get delayed. It would also cast shadow over all the good works being done by the NDA Government.

(The writer is special correspondent, The Pioneer)