E-Pao! Feature - The Differently Abled Person

The Differently Abled Person

Yaiphabi Chanu Thoudam *

Flipping through the newspaper one fine morning, a not-so-unusual news caught my attention. The heading goes like this, "Private Airline offloads wheelchair-bound man". Digging deeper into the main body of the news, the victim turned out to be an NGO activist, a cerebral palsy patient, a sub-committee member of the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities.

On the fateful day, Rajiv Ranjan had boarded the Air Sahara flight from Chennai to attend to a Trust meeting in Delhi, which was to discuss and plan national level training for local level committee members across the country. He had been denied to board the flight on grounds that he is medically unfit to fly. Despite the insistence that he has been a frequent flier and that he is physically fit to fly, the authority wouldn't listen to his pleadings.

Coming out of the hullabaloo, let's take a moment out to celebrate our physical able-ness and count our blessings, irrespective of how fat, short, dark, stupid or ugly looking we all are or we all think of ourselves or others around us. At the same time it is also important to give a second thought for those who are not as equal as us.

According to a conservative estimate, 6% of India's population is disabled, which when compared to other nations is one of the lowest. For example the disabled population of Australia, UK and USA is estimated at 18%, 14.2% and 9%, respectively. It is difficult to believe that India has lesser number of physically disabled persons given the size of its total population, which is estimated to be around 1.03 billion.

Yet, in spite of the low number of figures, one would surely agree that the Indian state has not taken up enough measures for the welfare of this group of minority. At the same time, 'physical disability' is considered more as a 'social issue' rather than a 'medical one'.

Stigma is attached upon a mentally retarded or physically challenged person. They are discriminated towards leading a dignified life in our society. Once I was taking a walk with my nephew when we came cross a physically deformed person.

My four-year-old nephew gaped at the man, horrified. Others present around, too, turned their heads, stopped whatever they were doing and studied the 'strange' looking man. Some even followed him at a distance, perhaps, to figure out the nature of his deformity.

An act so unintentional yet discriminatory was committed by the onlookers present at that time. We failed to realize that our curiosity was a cause of pain to him. Over and above, more often than not, we also tend to underestimate their ability and their skills.

What has often escaped our sensibilities is that no matter how severe the degree of disability is, the instinct of survival and self-preservation, and the very energy behind adaptation gives a reason to live. This maxim I believe is true for any human being.

Physically able or disabled, all of us continue our daily struggle with life in small little unseen battlefields.

According to the 2001 census, there are 21,906,769 disabled persons in India and in Manipur alone there are about 28,376 out of which 15,456 are males and 12,920 are females. This was the only Census from which the category of 'differently abled' persons was added in the census of India.

The Constitution of India declares that, all men are same in the eyes of the law and should be given equal opportunities irrespective of their caste, creed, sex or place of birth. In more specific terms, we have Article 41 of the Constitution which prescribes that "the State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provisions for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of disablement".

Again the law according to Chapter VI of The Disability Act 1995 is entitled 'Employment'. Clause 41 categorically mandates incentives to employers, both in public and private sectors, who ensure that at least 5% of their work force is composed of persons with disabilities.

However, on any given occasion, any survey conducted in any private or public sector will give a painfully low number of employees who are physically challenged. The figure is heartbreakingly low at only about 0.05% disabled employees.

In spite of the existing scenario of inadequacies, we cannot altogether ignore the efforts of the State towards giving equal opportunities to this group of minorities.

For instance, the Social Welfare Department, Government of India, implements numerous schemes for disabled persons to assist them to secure education, academic, technical or professional training on the shop/floor of the industrial establishment as such would enable them to earn a living and help in the growth so as to be useful members of the society.

Under such similar schemes, the Social Welfare Department, Government of Manipur has established two Special Schools, namely, Govt. Ideal blind School in Imphal West for the visually impaired and Govt. School for Deaf & Mute in Imphal West for the hearing impaired. The two schools have hostel facilities in which diet allowances of Rs. 500/- p.m. are provided to every hosteller.

A scholarship ranging from Rs. 40/- to Rs. 120/- p.m. is awarded to the students. Blind students are also provided 'Reader' allowance and Brailed textbooks at free of cost. Mentally challenged students are given maintenance allowance of Rs.300/- per annum. In recent times, NGOs have also started taking keen interest for the welfare of the differently abled persons. Mention can be made about the five Special Schools (four for Mentally Retarded and one for Hearing Impaired) established by NGOs in Manipur.

These institutions in its full functionality attempts to provide at least a respectable chunk of the differently abled persons a means of attaining good education and in turn a chance of employment and a better life. However, the absence or little participation of the differently abled in the administration or functioning of the State casts a spell of doubt on the authenticity of the numerous schemes and efforts which has been made so far for the upliftment of this group of minority.

Advanced methods and technologies of learning are yet to be introduced and implemented. Besides, with a scholarship of just Rs. 300 per annum the chance of attaining quality education is gravely wanting. Moreover, NGOs, how much ever they yearn to provide the best, suffers from want of fund.

As in the case of India, in the West, everyday, one would encounter at least two to five differently abled persons. But what is different about them is the ease with which they cope up with their day-to-day lives. One can see them walking alone with his/her stick or perhaps with a guide dog if one is lucky enough to posses one.

Similarly, one can see numerous wheel chair-bound people speeding a respectable speed in the pedestrian path- dashing inside super markets, picking up groceries and et. al., hunting for the cheapest bargain, and up they would wheel through the buses (which normally has free spaces reserved for wheel chair bounds) and local trains or air planes with equal ease or as little difficulty as possible.

Help and assistance is available when requested/required. The pedestrian paths are arranged/constructed in such a way that any wheeled body can easily be manoeuvred through. Similarly, traffic signals have press-buttons, upon pressing of which, the pedestrian light changes to green.

The deaf can obviously see it change, while the blind identifies it with the beeping sound and the 'deaf and blind' people sense it by means of the vibrator located beneath the press-button. The pedestrian path in and around any traffic points is impregnated with numerous little protrusions, which helps a blind person identify (senses the protrusions in his/her sole) the area as a traffic point.

Like wise, in any public places like shopping malls etc., there are special trial-rooms for the handicapped, reserved parking areas, specially designed wash-rooms in trains, restaurants and a personal assistance will be provided if the need arises; and many other State/Council benefits (financial assistance) makes their life an equally comfortable one.

Like it or not, the World Wide Web is one of the greatest weapon in the age of information technology and globalization. The world has benefited from the sea of information available online. Making a blind man or any physically challenged person net accessible is not a rocket scientist's job now.

Simple software called 'JAWS' would help the blind and the visually impaired in accessing the Net's benefits like any other man. 'JAWS' is a powerful software program designed in such a way that it works with a speech synthesizer- which means that data are converted into sound. Putting it in a lay man's terms, it is a computer that talks and reads out aloud. Thus, a blind person can see through his ears.

This improves the productivity level of visually impaired employees, students and any casual user. Streamlined keyboard functions, automating commands, and repetition elimination functions, allows the operator to learn faster and easier. Though the software has been designed with the priorities of the blind user in mind, yet any sighted trainer or supervisor can access JAWS since it offers both audible and visual flexibility.

This means that one doesn't necessarily have to rely on Brail notes to read or write. A simple task like writing a letter would become an equally simple task for a blind person too. Once the keyboard and its functions have been mastered, an internet connection will help get in touch with many friends across the world, and help in sharing information and ideas. Going further, attaining an online degree or accessing an online library from the comfort of home will no longer be a struggle.

In a parallel approach, little yet significant efforts can be made towards making the entertainment industry like TV programmes, movies etc. blind accessible by means of 'audio-described' CDs/DVDs and for the deaf by means of 'sub-tilted' ones. Efforts can be made to 'audio-describe' in Manipuri, many great movies inspired by real life stories and famous personalities; similarly books/classics can be made in the form of audiocassettes or CDs and made accessible to them at a cheap price.

Owning a lap-top or a personal computer by a blind or a deaf person in Manipur or India may sound like an unaffordable privilege. It will take many years before every blind person or their family can afford to buy a computer for themselves. But what can be brought into effect right now is our attitude towards the physically challenged or the differently abled group of the society - a sense of pity and dependency that we associate with any one who is deformed or disabled should change.

Walking down in busy streets in the West, one will come across many small children and adults with unusual looking features, enjoying their days out. Whether it is because people are too busy to give them a second look or people are just plain insensitive I do not know.

But what I know for sure is that, this casual acceptance or attitude of the society towards the physically challenged or deformed, gives them the much needed space/privacy, and consequently, a scope to make them feel that they are respected for their individuality and courage- that they are not an outcaste and to not let them succumb to a world of self pity and helplessness.

So next time I am on my day out with my nephew, I'll advise him to be insensitive to one's deformity/disability. He should not stare. He should be brave enough to have the heart and level of tolerance to accept them just as a normal human being capable of living an independent and dignified life just like any one of us.

I believe that given the right opportunity and platform, they can be as good as any human beings.

What they need most is love and some help- not sympathy, not alms.

* Yaiphabi Chanu Thoudam completed her Masters Degree in International Business and Emerging Markets from the University of Edinburgh and currently working as a Research Consultant in a Business Consultancy firm in India. This article is webcasted on 28th June 2007.

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