Hundreds of physically challenged people from across India on Monday came forth to voice their thoughts and celebrate their special abilities in the national capital on the occasion of World Disability Day.
Javed Abidi, executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), said that although the official numbers are quite low, in reality there are more than 60 million disabled people living in India.
"And most of these people are young. I would say nearly 80 per cent of the people who are disabled are children and young adults," Abidi told IANS.
And for them life is as tough as it can possibly get.
For instance, wheelchair-bound Vimal Singh said that despite doing well in the written tests, he could never make it through job interviews.
"Although I manage to get through the written tests, when it comes to job interviews, the employer always eyes me with suspicion, as if to question my capability to handle the job, and inevitably shows me the door," Singh said.
Activists agree that many others like Singh have had similar experiences.
Abhilasha Narayan, a social activist who works with the disabled, said: "No matter how disabled friendly we claim to be, the ground reality is far from it. Even if these people want to work or travel long distances, the environment is just not disabled friendly. After so long low floor buses have hit the roads. We still have a long way to go."
Although the government sector has a three percent reservation for the disabled, the private sector is yet to make any significant contribution.
No wonder then that a World Bank report, released about two weeks back, says the employment rate among the physically challenged in India has dropped from 43 to 38 percent in the past decade.
Despite this scenario, there are many who strive to overcome their handicaps - and succeed. Unfortunately, say activists, they are in a minority.
Lakshmi Sharma, a blind schoolteacher in Delhi, told IANS: "It's all in the mind. So what if I can't see? My other senses are so sharp that they more than make up for my eyes.
"There are challenges but what I always tell myself is that we are stronger than the rest. We face so many difficulties and yet have the courage to get on with life.
"I have been teaching in a school for the past 10 years. I know my students well and we share an excellent rapport. Often they come to drop me back home. What more can I ask for?"
Sarla, who is hearing impaired and works as a laboratory assistant in one of the colleges in Delhi University, said: "My colleagues, the professors, even the students, they are all very patient with me."
"Of course I have to work harder, concentrate more on what they are trying to say, what they want. But at the end of the day, the hard work pays off. I go home satisfied," said Sarla using sign language, with her colleague translating.
But not all are as fortunate as Lakshmi and Sarla. The fact remains that the disabled get little or no support from the various sections of society. But they are not ready to give up.
Abidi said: "Every year on the World Disability Day, we along with other partner organisations who work with people suffering from different kinds of disabilities across the country gather at India Gate.
"Since the rest of the year goes in organising protests, this is the day we celebrate. This year too we had a gala time at India Gate, complete with releasing balloons, dancing and music."
Nearly 6,000 people from as far as Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra gathered in New Delhi to have some fun and also voice their demands.
"This is the 11th year that we are celebrating the World Disability Day and each year we put forth certain demands and aims and try to meet them. This year we are demanding that the ministry of social justice and empowerment shouldn't be the only ministry looking after the needs of the disabled. There should be three percent resource allocation for them by each ministry," Abidi said.
Another demand is that provisions be made for issuing driving licenses to deaf people.