Nilesh Singit, 43, completed his Master’s degree in Literature from Mumbai university in 1993 and a course in information technology soon after, and thought he was ready for the job market. Responses from the initial telephonic interviews too sounded positive. Then he went for the face-to-face rounds.
A cerebral palsy survivor, Singit was rejected by one company after another — for four years. Dejected, he decided to turn entrepreneur. Here again he was repeatedly refused a bank loan, his condition cited as a “big liability.”
He eventually landed a job with Spastics Society of India. Now a vocal disability rights activist, Singit finally succeeded in starting his own consultancy firm in 2009.
“I come from a financially well-off family and had facilities that many others like me don’t have. I could afford a decent education. Yet, despite my qualifications, people just refused to see my ability,” he says.
Singit’s is not an isolated case. In India, more than 21 million people are listed as disabled as per the 2001 Census. A preliminary report from the 2011 Census puts that figure at between 40 million and 45 million — and more than half under the age of 30, according to a 2013 UN Habitat Report.
But the low priority accorded to the disabled by our policy makers has excluded a vast majority of this population from quality education and basic public infrastructure, and cut off a large chunk of this potential work force from contributing to India’s GDP.
An analysis of Union budgets since 2008, conducted by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in 2012, reflects the low priority. India spends only 0.0009% of its GDP on disability. This includes allocation for schemes across key ministries such as health, education, labour, rural development, youth affairs and sports.
Though there is no India-specific data available to assess the economic loss on account of exclusion of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) from work, a 2009 International Labour Organization study conducted in 10 low- and middle-income Asian and African countries measured the total loss between 3% and 7% of GDP.
“We keep hearing about how India’s youth are its biggest demographic dividend. But by not providing quality education the government has compromised an entire generation of young population,” says Javed Abidi, a disability rights activist and director of the NCPEDP. “How many of our schools/colleges have the basic technology needed to teach PwDs? How many colleges in the country have Braille enabled computers and sign language teachers for the deaf?”
According to 1999-2000 National Sample Survey Organisation data (the most recent such data available) the employment rate of PwDs was 37.6%, compared to a national average of 62.5%. A large chunk of these are likely underemployed, working at menial jobs in public call offices and as peons in government posts.And this is the view from within the narrow definition of disability, as per the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. Activists and experts say that these figures, therefore, do not even reflect the true picture.
Experts working in the sector say that in this digital era something as basic as making its websites accessible to PwDs continues to be an uphill task for the government.
“Today, you have to apply for a passport online, check your Provident Fund online, and file your taxes online. Imagine if this group can’t do any of that. It is creating barriers for them that will lead them again into a corner,” said Shilpi Kapoor, MD of BarrierBreak which provides innovative assistive technologies to PwDs.
Now, with an additional push from the judiciary, the government is beginning to amend its attitude. A recent Supreme Court directive to reserve 3% of government jobs across categories for PwDs, based on total vacancies and not posts identified, is a crucial step in the right direction.
The government is also finalising a new anti-discriminatory law on disability, which has expanded the definition of that term to make it more comprehensive and inclusive.
“It is a rights-based bill and is in consonance with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The government has also doubled its outlay for the sector in the 12th Plan [2012-17[. But along with policies, the mindset of people and society also needs to change,” says Kumari Selja, who heads the union ministry of social justice and empowerment, which is piloting the new law.
The good news
In recent years, however, it’s the private sector that is setting the trend by advocating equal opportunity for PwDs. Companies like IT major Infosys, IBM and TCS, Dupont, Deutsche Bank, HDFC have a robust recruitment policy which lets them hire PwDs because of their potential and not just to fulfill its corporate social responsibility initiatives.
Bangalore resident Mujtaba Merchant, 36, is an example. In 2011, Merchant had to quit his job in TCS after losing vision in both eyes to glaucoma. “After I left hospital, I applied in TCS again and was hired,” he said.
Today Mujtaba works in the company’s project management office. His daily life has altered a bit, but aided by technology and a supportive workplace he manages to go about his daily life almost effortlessly.
“It’s only when you start to see us as a potential human resource and start to invest that you will be able to tap the large talent pool,” says George Abraham, CEO of Score Foundation, an advocacy group for the visually impaired. “The charity paradigm needs to be cut out of the discourse.”
‘A lot more needs to be done’
Here's what Kumari Selja, union minister for social justice and empowerment, had to say about the issue in an interview with Moushumi Das Gupta:
There are an estimated 40 million disabled people in India, 50% of whom are under the age of 30. Do you think we are doing enough to socially and economically empower such a large section of the population?
We are moving forward in our effort to empower persons with disabilities (PwDs). A new Act is being readied which is much more comprehensive and inclusive. But obviously a lot more needs to be done. We are pushing for the recognition of PwDs at different tiers of the government, but I have to admit it’s still a struggle and we have a long way to go. Not including such people in the development process will result in a long-term loss of productive potential.
Last month, at the UN, India reaffirmed its commitment towards empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. What will the implications of this be for India?
This commitment makes inclusion of disability a sustained long-term goal in the international development agenda post-2015. It also makes it binding for India to take legislative and administrative measures to ensure the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities.
The Supreme Court last week directed the Centre and state governments to reserve 3% of government jobs, based on total vacancies, for disabled persons. How and when does the government plan to implement this?
The apex court’s judgment reinforces our efforts. However, as the Department of Personnel and Training was appellant in the matter, we will have to consult it on how this will be implemented.