Thursday, December 4, 2008

Being a part of something bigger than yourself

 World Disability Day, Delhi, 2008. There was a Dharna called for at the India Gate with three main demands.

-          Each Ministry to have a clear cut plan on disability

-          Each Ministry to allocate 3% resources on disability issues as mandated in the XIth plan

-          Government to set up a separate Ministry for Disability

I have been disabled for the last 16 years. I have been working in the disability sector for the last 12 years with a complete urban experience only. I participated in the Dharna half heartedly. At the back of my mind there were apprehensions and unwillingness to be a part of such an activity.

I reached there with my colleagues and friends. We purposefully went an hour late as I thought no one will be there on time anyways. By the time we reached there the venue was packed up with over 10,000 people. I had never seen such a large crowd of people and let alone disabled people. There were people from all states of India – disabled people; grassroots workers; friends and family of disabled people. They all had one cry ‘Viklang Ekta Zinda Baad’ (Hail to disabled unity!)

I was completely shaken by the fact that there were these groups of disabled people who had traveled from small villages to Delhi to demand their basic rights. People from southern states wore short lungis that was no protection against the unforgiving Delhi cold. Many of them did not even have a sweater. There were crawlers who must have traveled all the way from their village in our shoddy inaccessible trains. But this seemed insignificant as against their conviction to get their rights. They were all ready to sit through the night in this open venue if required. 

When I compared myself, as so called role model (having received several awards), I felt absolutely worthless and uncommitted to a cause I have been working for all these 12 years. My concerns of poor standards and understanding of Inclusion seemed so trivial in front of their basic demands.

I am humbled by the spirit of all these people and salute their conviction. Each one of them was a true inspiration and a role model to me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My first voting experience

Delhi had the assembly polls on November 28, 2008. I had been reading in the news papers that all polling booths were now accessible to people with disabilities. By accessibility they meant that the booths now had a step free access and Braille ballot paper.

 I was happy about the elections because I got a holiday, I was blissfully basking in the sun, till a friend of mine pushed me to go and vote. I tried to get out of it by saying that I did not have a Voters ID card, which he told me was not required and other ID’s were being accepted too.

 Since I knew the booth will be accessible, I agreed to go. I drove on my electric wheelchair till the booth which was about a kilometer away from my home. It was stationed at a Public School. On reaching I realized that only the wicket gate was open which had a bottom rod over which my electric wheelchair would not go. Then after the gate hurdle the route to the room where I was supposed to cast my vote had two steps.

 The Delhi Police who were manning the booth were happy to lift me through these hurdles, as they generally had being doing till now. What they failed to realize was that an electric wheelchair with me on it weighed over 200 Kgs. Once I explained this to them they of course were not willing any longer.

 After a long wait outside the gate a school gardener offered to assist me to get my ballot room. It was like an all terrain ride where I tested my wheelchair driving skills to the limit. Casting a vote that was a simple 5 minutes task for all turned out to be an hour long action packed activity for me, with times where my chair nearly toppled over, while driving over wooden planks that the gardener brought out from the store and spontaneously created temporary slopes for me.

 I casted my vote because by now I was determined to, but the two main issues that come out are:- 

  1. The claims of accessibility by the Election Commission are as vague as their understanding of accessibility in the first place. Just for example while it is a positive step that they provided Braille ballot paper for persons with vision impairments, but this was done without their understanding of the fact that a only a small percentage of people with vision impairments can read Braille. They could have considered using large print and colour contrast or even embossing.
  2. We talk about Inclusive Education by 2010 and zero rejection policy by schools, then looking at the school where my polling booth was stationed; it seems like a unachievable target.

 My Verdict

The Government implements schemes and policies such as accessible polling booths, inclusive education, etc without having any analysis of the needs of the intended target group. No wonder they will never be able to evaluate whether having Braille ballots actually helped voters with vision impairments or how to further improve the accessibility of the election procedure for disabled voters. Also while they have 2010 as the magical year by when inclusive education will be a reality, they have no accessibility standards that schools need to comply to. Additionally, the Government’s concept of inclusion is very outdated. They seek advice on inclusion from un-qualified people working for philanthropy in the disability sector.

Disability has to be looked at as a developmental issue rather than a social issue, with appropriate funds and professionalism ingrained into it. After all for building a flyover one will consult an engineer and not a mason, why then when it comes to disability inclusion issues suddenly qualifications and professionalism are not needed and sub standard services provided to the disabled acceptable? 

My wheelchair is not my identity

I became disabled person when I was 22 years old in a car accident. There was a very marked change in people’s behaviour towards me, and o...