We must enable the disabled

Discrimination is a disease. Despite a host of legislation, India still suffers from this disease thanks to the weak implementation of the existing laws and closed mindsets. One such case is the 18-year-old law that allows for 3% reservation for disabled persons in State jobs.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court directed the Centre and the states to implement within three months the law — Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act — which provides a minimum 3% reservation in government establishments. Rejecting the concern of the quota breaching the 50% cap on reservations, the court said that employment is a key factor in the empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities.

While this aptly summarises one of the reasons why the disabled have not been able to join the ‘mainstream’, it is the second part of the court’s observation that captures the issue more succinctly: “It is an alarming reality that disabled people are out of job not because their disability comes in the way of their functioning, rather it is social and practical barriers that prevent them from joining the workforce.”

This is also probably why reservation may not be the silver bullet to solve this multidimensional problem. But before we explore the kinds of barriers the disabled face, here’s the first hurdle that the government itself has not been able to cross: India doesn’t have a clear figure on the number of disabled.

The 2001 census showed that 2.1% of the population had disabilities. Estimates by the Planning Commission and various UN bodies place it at about 10%; and according to the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, the most conservative estimate will put it between 5 to 6%. Without a clear picture, is it possible to allocate resources and draw up plans for them?

Employment opportunities for the disabled are important but how many of them are able to reach that level considering that there are so many social and infrastructure barriers: how many parents invest in the education of their disabled wards? How many of our public buildings are disabled-friendly?

The Right to Education law also allows for making schools disabled-friendly (better designed classes, toilets and better teaching materials) but the truth is that most of our government schools find it hard to implement such standards. 

So instead of focusing only on reservation, it’s time the government concentrated more diligently on the basic barriers that a disabled person encounters at each step in life.

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