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India Looks to Diverse Strategy on Disability

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy hands a memento to a disabled student at a ceremony in Thiruvananthapuram, India Credit: K. S. Harikrishnan/IPS

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India , Dec 22 2012 (IPS) - Twenty-year-old Reshma, hailing from the village of Aryanad in the Thiruvananthapuram district of the South Indian state of Kerala, was forced to drop out of school early as a result of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Her parents had just about given up hope on their daughter’s future when she received admission to the Centre for Disability Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram city.

After six months of counselling, which included the unusual but proven method of horticultural therapy, they began to notice a world of change in Reshma’s life and habits.

Reshma has now developed confidence in practical and social skills. With her parents’ help, she uses gardening as a means of therapy.

After a long absence, she has returned to school to complete her studies.

CDS Director Dr. G. K. Beela told IPS that numerous studies on the programme reveal that horticultural therapy has a significant impact on the development of self-esteem and motor skills in mentally and physically challenged children.

“Horticultural therapists work with people who are disabled or disadvantaged by age, circumstance and ability. Kerala is the first Indian state to adopt the therapy systematically,” she said, adding that there is an urgent need to apply the method on a national scale to meet the needs of India’s disabled.

The National Census of 2001 revealed that over 21 million people in India were suffering from some kind of disability. Indian demographers roughly estimated that the number of disabled persons increased to 70 million this year.

Experts participating in a recent national seminar on disability in Thiruvananthapuram stressed the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to rehabilitation and therapy, against the backdrop of a growing number of disabled persons in the country.

Merru Baura, director of the non-profit ‘Action for Autism’ in New Delhi, said that the rights of the disabled should be protected and alternative forms of treatment explored.

For many years, rights activists have been urging the Union Government to formulate a comprehensive policy to address the needs of the disabled, rather than prolong the current system, which has splintered laws and policies regarding disabilities into individual acts and processes.

Following fervent appeals by various rights groups, the ministry of social justice and empowerment constituted a committee in 2010 under the chairpersonship of Dr. Sudha Kaul, vice-chairperson of the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy in Kolkata, to draft new legislation to replace the existing laws.

Protection of the rights of disabled women, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is also a great concern for activists here.

Jaya Edappal, a disabled lawyer in Malappuram, told IPS that developing and maintaining mechanisms that increase the participation and representation of disabled women in all decision-making areas would improve the status of disabled women in the minds of the public.

“The government should provide…services (such as social services, employment and priority in bank loans) and programmes to disabled women and give clear rationale for the development of specific programmes,” she suggested.

India is a signatory to the Declaration on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asia-Pacific Region and the Biwako Millennium Framework for action towards an inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society.

Thus analysts are urging the Union Government to uphold its commitments on paper and put into practice a broad policy on disability management with prevention, early detection, and early intervention systems, as well as occupational training and a uniform curriculum nationwide.

Few government-run educational institutions have committed to providing equally for all students, according to Dr. J.V. Asha, post-doctoral research fellow at the Indian Council for Social Science Research in New Delhi. Differently-abled students continue to suffer from marginalisation as a result of visual, hearing, speech or orthopaedic impairments.

A recent study on academic achievements and intellectual skills of differently-abled children in the Kollam district of Kerala, conducted by Dr. V. Biji, a lecturer in clinical psychology at the Institute for Communicative and Cognitive Neurosciences in Thiruvananthapuram, showed that academic performance was extremely low among the lower socio-economic group.

“Parents’ awareness about disability and rehabilitation treatment programmes was poor,” the study found.

Social activists have suggested that a governmental policy on integrating rural development issues and upgrading agricultural production technologies to meet the special requirements of the handicapped will enhance the life chances and prosperity of disabled people living in rural India.

Suman Prasad, director of Jan Abhiyan Parishad, a governmental organisation set up for promoting the constructive interference of NGOs in development work in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, said at the conference in Thiruvananthapuram that the rural disabled are the most vulnerable group in the country and protecting them is the “need of the hour”.

A 2008 World Bank report on disabilities in India found that low literacy rates, few jobs and widespread social stigma had also made disabled people among the most excluded in the country.

“Assisting disabled people is an integral part of achieving developmental goals. It is necessary to improve income generating and employment opportunities for the disabled in rural areas,” Prasad stressed.

A large number of disabilities in India are preventable, including those arising from medical issues during birth, malnutrition, as well as accidents and injury. However, the health sector is yet to react more proactively to disability, especially in rural areas, the report said.


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