Does the new Act for the disabled represent the needs of differently abled women?
Both Deepa and Sakshi Malik have won medals for India. But the similarities between the two probably end there. Wheelchair bound Deepa, wife of an army officer and mother of two, made India proud with her silver medal in shot-put at the 2016 Paralympics, the first ever Paralympic medal by an Indian woman, while Sakshi, with a bronze win at the Rio Olympics became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics. But whereas Sakshi’s Olympic feat made her a household name, Deepa says that though the Indian government and their own states feted the para-athletes, the able-bodied athletes got more attention from across the country and corporates looking to sign endorsement deals.
“There are few facilities for para-athletes in general. For a woman para-athlete the challenges are bigger,” says Deepa. “For the longest time I couldn’t find anyone in the sports fraternity who was sensitive enough and aware enough of my medical condition to train me,” says the wheelchair bound athlete. “Even if I want to inspire other differently abled women to join sports, I can’t because basic facilities like accommodation, transportation, finding a wheelchair, are difficult,” she adds.
Abuse, discrimination to simple neglect, there is a range of ill-treatment that the differently abled have to deal with routinely. Which is why when both houses of the Parliament passed the Rights of People with Disability Bill, 2014 in the 2016 winter session of the Parliament, it was seen as a welcome attempt by the government at somewhat balancing the odds against them.
Of course this was not the first time that a law had been passed for the benefit of the disabled. The new Act replaces the Rights of People With Disabilities Act 1995. There are other specific laws such as the National Mental Health Policy. Yet the response to the new Act was positive. For one, the Act gave recognition to 21 types of disabilities, a major improvement from the seven that were recognised in the previous law. It also mentions penalty for violation of the provisions. Where it failed, feel many, was in giving “holistic protection or representation to women with disabilities”, a section that often suffers from a double restriction – of being a woman, with the added “burden” of disabilities.
“The Act does mention women at a few places, with respect to reproductive health for example , but often the bill clubs women and children with disabilities together,” says Delhi-based academician and disability rights activist Anita Ghai.
Many feel that the Act has fallen short of giving a disabled woman as much right over her life and body as she would want to have. “I am concerned about the clause on termination of pregnancy,” says Nidhi Goyal, a Mumbai-based activist working on disability rights and gender justice. “The Act mentions that even for a woman with disabilities, pregnancy can’t be terminated without her consent, except in cases of severe disabilities. But it does not clarify what is a severe disability. I am 95 to 98 per cent blind. I can just make out whether it is light or dark. Is that severe?” she asks. The issue becomes important since, activists say, women with disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, resulting in pregnancy.
There are other gaps. “It addresses issues like livelihood assistance, social security etc, which are of course important especially for those who need economic assistance. But it doesn’t address the needs of women with disabilities at large,” says Shivani Gupta, an inclusive design consultant. Gupta is wheelchair bound. It’s the same for higher education. “ It mentions compulsory primary education, but doesn’t talk of inclusion in higher education or in institutes like IITs and IIMs,” says Delhi-based disability rights activist Anjlee Agarwal. The same disregard to detail or execution can be seen in all other laws for women which can also apply to women with disabilities, feel experts. The Criminal Law Amendment of 2013 added to the list of crimes against women. All these included crimes committed against women with disabilities also.
“Personally, I would rather want general laws for women to be made more inclusive for women with disabilities, rather than have laws framed specifically for them,” says Bengaluru-based Meenu Bhambhani. “Take the law against the sexual harassment of women at the workplace. There has been no thought given on how to make it more accessible to women with disabilities. Are complaint committee members aware of issues affecting disabled women? If the woman is speech impaired, is there anyone in the committee who can interact with her?” questions Bhambhani. The same is true of the law on domestic violence against women. “The domestic space for many disabled women is the natal home and the assumption is that her family can’t abuse her. If she dares complaint, she is perceived to be ungrateful. There is also the concern of who will look after her if she complaints against the family” says Kolkata-based academician and activist Nandini Ghosh.
Physical inaccessibility is also a big concern. Often just going out to file a complaint becomes difficult for a differently abled woman “Places of law such as the police station or courts are often inaccessible,” says Ghai. Also, the movement for the rights of women, is often not inclusive of the rights of disabled women, feels activist Javed Abidi. “There are few organisations working specifically for the rights of disabled women. There are no domain experts, only a few individuals who through their work and discourse have been trying to draw attention. There is a disconnect between the women’s movement and those for the rights of disabled women which are unique, by the way. Even the National Commission for Women – do they have a department, cell or desk for women with disabilities?” he asks.
The pattern of disconnect starts translating into every aspect of a disable d woman’s life.
Disclaimer: The feature uses the word disabled instead of differently abled since many feel the latter is just a euphemism that makes no qualitative difference to their lives
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