Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

INDIA: No Place to be Disabled In

Keya Acharya

BANGALORE, May 25 2009 (IPS) - India passed a law for equal opportunities and rights for persons with disabilities in 1995, but in spite of taking more steps than some other developing countries, its 60 million physically challenged population remains hugely disadvantaged.

“There are very few options in wheelchair production, especially for children, with no regular supply of whatever is available,” K.N. Gopinath, assistant director of the Bangalore-based Association of People with Disabilities (APD), a national organisation working to empower the physically challenged told IPS.

Technology in locomotion and mobility for the disabled has progressed worldwide, but India continues to use antiquated tricycles and wheelchairs as mobility devices.

“Basic understanding of mobility is lacking in India today,” APD director V.S. Basavaraju told IPS.

Thirty-two-year-old Usman, who works for a company manufacturing aids and appliances for the disabled in Bangalore, says he has never boarded a bus or train. “Even though people are willing to help you, it is still nearly impossible to use public transport here.”

Nineteen-year-old Hanumantha says he has an arrangement with a colleague to drop him home every evening. In return Hanumantha buys him a ticket to the movies once a fortnight. “My father brings me to office everyday, carries me and sits me down,” he says.

Only about 15 percent of the loco motor disabled in India are able to use public transport, as compared to over 65 percent of disabled populations in developed countries. The rest struggle to commute daily – or are immobilised.

India’s social support network of family and friends is much stronger than in developed nations, but there is little barrier-free access to public facilities.

Usman is one of the luckier ones. His inputs on what suits the disabled most were used by his employers, the Bangalore-based Indian company Flexitron, to design a low-cost, motorised, rechargeable bike for the disabled, priced Rs. 18,000 (356 dollars). Similar bikes cost around 3,000 dollars in western markets.

Most of Flexitron’s labour are disabled or challenged individuals who test their own products for usability and durability, thereby serving both their own livelihood interests and those of the company.

But private companies like Flexitron lack access to government channels which use the public sector Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Company (ALIMCO) to source disability appliances.

Not surprisingly, Flexitron now has a major market outside India, selling low- cost, low-wattage consumption technologies, including 53 disability- assistance devices, to 16 countries.

Flexitron director R.S. Hiremath acknowledges that India has a poor record in research and development, but says there are several low-cost options that could be made in India for everyday needs, such as cutlery that can be grasped by those without fingers, or mats that allow a person to transport himself from wheelchair to bed, or bathroom devices.

“These would be simple devices, so very useful for the disabled, at half the price compared to western countries,” he says.

But progress is patchy. “There is no actual discussion across all sectors of related users and manufacturers,” Gopinath told a gathering at the APD golden jubilee celebrations in Bangalore last month. He said that the 1995 law, the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act is dependent on funding without designating a specified source for it.

India’s Deputy Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, T.D. Dhariyal, says each state in India has its own priorities to arrange funding.

India is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asia-Pacific Region and to the Biwako Millennium framework for action towards an inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society. The Biwako framework of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) was agreed in Japan in 2002.

Barrier-free systems use appliances and designs such as stair lifts at metro stations, wheelchair-friendly ramps, Braille signboards, and accessible ticketing counters.

The only places in Asia with near-total barrier-free public environments by UNESCAP standards are Hong Kong and Japan.

Dhariyal says India’s Disabilities Act of 1995 provides a strong fillip to ensuring the rights of the disabled.

“I am currently fighting a case in court of a visually impaired government officer who has been denied the position of District Collector (a senior administrative rank) because of his disability,” says Dhariyal. The Act now makes it possible to take up such cases, he said.

India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, responsible for the disabled, has six schemes for rehabilitation, livelihood, education and assisted device grants, more than what most other nations have.

The amount of assistance on offer is, however, inadequate. “How much can Rs. 6,000 (118 dollars), given as grant for aids and appliances by the government really help?” says Hiremath.

But many are not able to access even this fund.

“My experience is that most of the current funding available (for disability- related aid) remains unused,” Dhariyal told IPS.

“We (APD) are now saying that what we have today in India is not enough, that we need value addition to mobility issues,” says APD director V.S. Basavaraju.

Dhariyal agrees that quality could be improved. “If aids of better quality are the issue, then somebody should approach the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (looking after disability-related governance) and put it to them,” he says, sending the ball back to the court of organisations like APD.

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