Millennium Post

Promoting a universal design

Blinded by stereotypes, society overshadows disabled people’s abilities with their disability

They say Newton adored his cat and her kitten. To make it easy for them to enter his house, he made two holes — a small one for the kitten, and a bigger one for the cat. Just perfect, he thought, till he saw the cat enter through the larger hole, and the little one follows the same. That's when it hit him — like an apple had fallen on his head — that he needn't have made the smaller hole after all. One entrance suitable for his cats of whatever sizes - now, that would have been perfect.

It's something the disability sector calls universal design. Design things and places that all can use – and you won't need to make "special" things for the "specially-abled", or "different" things for the "differently abled", or whatever other proper but pointless labels are created to refer to persons with disabilities.

Facilities for people with disabilities in India often suffer from two defects: Providing what is not required, and not providing what is. Take ramps. Ramps are made to enable mobility, but too many ramps resemble slides in a children's playground. Not only does it not facilitate a wheelchair user's mobility, but s/he would also likely need two people to push her up the mighty slope. This is not only a waste of financial resources, but it is also clearly a violation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016.

The RPWD Act mandates inclusion. There should be no segregation of people with disabilities. It is the core principle of India's Constitution — we are equal citizens, with the right not to be discriminated against. But from very early in life, a person with a disability is excluded. Both the RPWD Act and the Right to Education Act stress on inclusive education, and the need to treat each child with dignity. Schools should cater to all children. So that children with disabilities can study with those without. And yet, 90 per cent of children with disabilities worldwide do not attend school. And out of the 12 million children with disabilities in India, only one per cent has access to a school.

Children with disabilities are also less likely to be retained in school due to barriers such as stigma, discrimination, inaccessible transport, unprepared classrooms and teachers. Children with disabilities are at 1.7 times greater risk of violence and three times more likely to be denied healthcare than other people. Children with developmental disabilities are the most marginalised and vulnerable to discrimination, violence, abuse and exploitation. But there seems to be no urgency among authorities to address this.

People with disabilities are routinely stigmatised and their rights violated almost from the word go. And if against all odds they somehow wriggle through the system and complete high school or college, they then become eligible for the grand prize of a disability pension — Rs 500 per month. Most have to be content with this. Because when they apply for jobs, what precedes their CV is societal bias: The belief that disabled people are "becharas" who can't really be expected to work productively. This bias, like all biases, is flawed because it focuses on the one or two disabilities that people may have, completely ignoring their abilities.

Why is it so easy to ignore the disabled? Why do we restrict ourselves to only majoritarian concerns — and plan for only 80 per cent of the population? Why not for all? When we design to accommodate a disability, we design to accommodate all. Besides, it's not as though disability is some freak thing that happens to some minuscule population. There is no them and us in disability. No one can ever say that s/he will be never be affected by disability.

As a country, we seem to systematically ignore the disabled. We have not even started to recognise it as relevant. Why is it still so difficult to insert questions on disability when we are doing NSSO surveys/ SDGs/audits/data collection? Why is there hardly any data on the living challenges of people with disabilities?

The answer is not a flattering one. As a society, we are used to looking upon disability with either pity or revulsion. Let us make the effort to see the humanity of each person, and not be blinded by prejudice and stereotypes. People with disability are not objects of pity. They do not deserve to be shunned or treated as helpless creatures in need of our charity.

Disability is a part of human diversity. Each human being has inherent dignity and people with disabilities are a part of the rich tapestry that is the human family. Let us not make separate spaces to separate people. It is prejudice that makes persons with disabilities part of the "bechara" bandwagon. Let's build a caring world — where everyone is included.

(The author is Executive Director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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