Sunday, 24 May 2015

Stop me if you have heard this before...

Today witnessed yet another instance of my institute's refreshing habit of bending over backwards to keep supporting me in my attempts at `disability activism'. What brought this on was the fact that the Standing Committee of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment came out just last week with its report to the ministry on its views on the so-called Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2014 after soliciting opinions of `stakeholders'. This report was refreshing in the sensitivity with which it addressed many issues, and had explicitly recommended that the Ministry solicit the aid of various NGOs and stakeholders before finalising the draft of the Bill. And there was a feeling that we, the interested parties, should try to stress this enlightened point of view before the Government officials do something in their often unthinking and high-handed ways. So, rather than the same organisation, DRA, baying like a lone wolf, we thought we should try to make it a `multi-city' venture, by initiating a skype conference soliciting views from `our kind' in Bombay, Hyderabad, Delhi, etc. Since a place with good connectivity was needed for this skype meeting, I asked my Director if we could use a room in the institute and have our systems people to render the needed help, and he promptly agreed. Not long before we were scheduled to meet, one of my friends called and said she was having trouble finding an auto-rickshaw driver who would agree to take her and her wheel-chair. Somewhere from the recesses of my normally leaky memory, I seemed to recall our administrative officer telling me that they had decided to buy a wheel-chair and keep it with the security guards at the gate, for possible use by visitors who might need it! I checked with the security, and sure enough they had it. So I told Smitha if she could just find an auto and come without her wheelchair, my driver Sekar would be there to wheel her to the venue. So, once again, IMSc had demonstrated that it was a haven for wheelchair users!

At the room earmarked for the meeting, both Vasan and Jahir were there in readiness (at 0915 on a Saturday morning!) 45 minutes ahead of the announced starting time for the meeting, to make sure there were no unforeseen glitches. There were some glitches through the meeting, but nothing they could be blamed for. Thus it was that we got started a mere 15 minutes late, and at 10:15, the entire cast of characters had assembled: Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Bhavna Botta, Poonam Natarajan, Beena Prithveeraj, Amba Salelkar, Shankar Subbiah, Rajiv Rajan, Deepak Thirumalai Nathan, Smitha Sathasivam and me from Chennai (seated around an almost Arthurian round table), and from outside Chennai and visible on a screen at one coner of the room were Nidhi Goyal, Nilesh Singit, Jeeja Ghosh, Pavan Muntha, Abha Khetarpal - an altogether respectable and serious right-minded people across India linked by a common desire to ensure that PwD in India get a fair deal.

Not having taken careful notes of the deliberations, I won't go into the details. Suffice it to say that some report with a more accurate account of the recommendations is bound to be prepared soon,  by people better versed in the legal implications of the various clauses and articles in the Bill and the recommendations of the Standing Committee and this will be forwarded to the appropriate officials. And one will sit with fingers crossed and wait for the next development! For what it is worth, my two bits' worth to the deliberations were the following noises regarding `Definitions' (the first two points where I disagree with the recommendations of the Standing Committee, and the subsequent six where I am in complete accord with them, and offer half a suggestion in the last):

1) In item 3.3, using the phrase `Person with Disability' is perfectly OK; using the phrase `differently able' is giving undue importance to the difference. Besides, it is not helping anybody to pretend that I do not have a disability when, in fact, I need a wheelchair to move around because I am not able to walk around on my own two legs! Our PM wears glasses while I do not; does that make him differently able? So let us not play with words and pretend that it is a level playing field!

2) Enlarging the list from 19 to 26 or 27 (in the proposed definition of PwD) will solve no problem; it is just the sort of short-sighted policy-making that suggests that  `urban infrastructural woes can be solved by doubling road widths and the number of cars on the road; and two years  down the line, just repeat the exercise'. The UNCRPD definition of PwD should be adopted, without attempting to quantify or classify disability!

3) In item 3.6,  what is the need to explicitly exclude J&K? It must be changed so as to be truly inclusive!

4) The SC is dead right when they say (in 3.8) that `The Committee are of the unyielding view that the "attitude‟ and "psychology‟ of the people are also major hindrance for full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society.' I am convinced that emoving this clear reference to barriers is a dis-service.

5) The SC should also be lauded for insisting on a clear understanding in 3.11 of what constitutes communication - by recognising sign language as a genuine medium of communication!

6) This broader interpretation of `Establishment' in 3.14  - whereby, even privately owned establishments that are used by the public should be made accessible - is also most refreshing.

7) The definition of public infrastructure in item 3.35 is wonderfully inclusive and should find place in the Bill.

8) Recreation: item 3.99 says: "persons with disabilities to have a cultural life and to participate in recreational activities equally with others..."

Maybe 3.101 could also stipulate - as suggested to the members of the SC  when they came to Chennai, by my colleague Ummul ("I also love the smells and sounds of the sea, but am unable to get anywhere near it!") - that "Public places like parks and beaches should be made accessible - including tactile paths, wheel-chair friendly paths, disabled friendly toilets".