India has been under lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic since middle of March. The lockdown has bared India’s many entrenched inequalities for everyone to see. The ruling government’s provisions for the poor and disadvantaged have been questionable, to put it mildly. For India’s 27 million citizens with disabilities, govt. directives have been anything but adequate. The Ministry of Family Welfare and Health issued directives in formats not accessible for many persons with disabilities. The Prime Minister’s televised speeches were missing language interpreters. The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities only issued instructions by March 27 on e-passes for the persons with disabilities, their caregivers and NGOs working for the PwD community.

Three weeks into the lockdown, Ungender spoke with five disability rights activists on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown, perceptions around the issue of sexual harassment, the many manifestations of ableism and how to tackle it, and more. The resulting conversation was a crash course in how we can sensitise and educate ourselves better on the many obstacles, both structural and behavioural that persons with disabilities face while navigating public spaces.

Impact

The lockdown has affected persons with disabilities on several fronts – caregiving, access to medicines, social distancing.

Preeti Singh, a disability rights activist and first runner-up of Miss Wheelchair India 2017, shared her concerns about persons with disabilities not having access to their caregivers during the lockdown. She said, “A lot of us are dependent on our caregivers for basic physiological needs. As a result of the lockdown most of the caregivers weren’t able to reach them. The guidelines for the same were sloppy in the beginning and even with the e-pass caregivers were still not allowed.” Preeti has also been worried about what she should do if she wanted to get tested for the virus and if the isolation centres are even accessible.

The CEO of Nipman Foundation, Nipun Malhotra, elaborated on the challenges that came without the PwD community having access to their caregivers. He said, “Lockdowns have led to unique challenges – persons have been stuck on bed, some even getting bedsores as caretakers can’t reach them. Persons with thalassemia aren’t getting access to blood, others to medical therapists. Home delivery of medicines & groceries is another challenge.”

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Reflecting on the government’s directives so far, award-winning disability rights defender Dr. Satendra Singh thought there wasn’t enough talk about how the government was catering to the needs of the most vulnerable from the disability community, especially the autistic and the hemophiliacs.

Founder of the award-winning organisation Rising Flame Now, Nidhi Goyal shared how social distancing was a challenge for the blind as they relied on touch to navigate private and public spaces. She also wanted the civil society and government to think about the plight of daily wage workers with disabilities, like the blind hawker community in the Wangni area of Navi Mumbai. This article highlights the challenges the community faces when their place of work functioned normally. The lockdown is sure to have aggravated existing challenges and added new ones.

Sexual Harassment At Workplace

Discussions with and about persons with disabilities in India rarely ever concern themselves with the crucial subject of sexual harassment at the workplace. Nipun was of the opinion that people with disabilities are considered asexual but they’re actually more vulnerable to sexual harassment than able-bodied people. Nidhi, also in agreement on this, said: “The label of asexual renders any sexual harassment complaint that disabled women want to file as useless. The mechanisms are not accessible. Harassment around disability and gender is not considered, and committees are not sensitive to meet the needs of issues of disabled women.”

The Sexual Harassment Of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013 (colloquially referred to as the PoSH Act) does not explicitly address the needs of women with disabilities. It also gives no special directives to how an ICC should function when the complainant or the accused is a person with disability. However, Dr Singh pointed out how redressal could perhaps be achieved through the Rights of Persons with Disability Act of 2016. He said, “Disabled are humans too and holders of rights. Reason we are overlooked is because we aren’t aware of our rights. The RPDA protects us from various forms discrimination and ensures access to equal employment opportunities, and societal participation.”

Inaccessible public and workspaces

It is common knowledge how inaccessible a lot of our public spaces, including our workspaces, continue to be. Preeti recounted her horrid experience from her MBA days when she found it extremely difficult to move outside of her campus. She recalls having visited multiple places where the elevator was located only after a few steps. On the lack of accessible spaces, Preeti said, “we lack inclusive designs. Even today finding an inclusive infrastructure at educational institutions, public transport, offices and out housing is such a big challenge! Access is a privilege 100 percent of the time.”

Shams, an international gold medalist para swimmer shared a positive experience that employers could learn from. “I am working in an automobile parts company and I found some accessibility issues. When I brought it to their notice, they made changes happily and now they want to appoint more people with disabilities. Problems will be there, how positively we make changes important,” he said.

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In 2015, Nipun had gone out with his friends to a restaurant in South Delhi where he wasn’t allowed to enter because the restaurant had a ‘policy’ barring entry of persons with disabilities. Among other actions he’d taken in the wake of the incident, he’d also reached out to a food delivery app and asked them to mark restaurants that weren’t accessible. The restaurant aggregator responded promptly and soon after implemented a filter that would allow persons with disability and the elderly to check if a restaurant was accessible or not.

The Ministry of Urban Development had released a comprehensive document in 2016 that illustrated the guidelines to be followed to build barrier-free environments for people with disabilities and elderly persons.

Tackling ableism

Barriers aren’t just physical. Attitudinal barriers in workplaces keep employers and the workforce from becoming more aware and sensitive to the needs of persons with disabilities. Nidhi called out the prevalent mindset that expects people with disabilities to be grateful when they get a job. She said, “The environment remains that of unequal pay, discriminatory behaviour and charity.”

Dr Singh added that this issue needed to be tackled if India were to achieve Goal 8 of the SDGs for Agenda2030. Goal 8 aims to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for men and women and equal pay for work of equal value, including for people with disabilities. Preeti wants efforts to sensitize the workforce to go beyond a two-hour workshop. To tackle ableism effectively, changes would need to be made to the overall culture of the organisation, including amending the recruitment process to reduce discrimination.

What the government needs to do

On being asked about what the government should do, the activists generously added to the priority to-do checklist. The leading policy making approach, Nipun said, would have to be that of ‘nothing about us without us’ which means increased representation and deliberate inclusion of persons with disabilities while making policies. He expressed his shock at the fact that no political party has a disability cell like they have for other minorities. To prevent more public spaces from being inaccessible, he asked for “accessibility NOCs’ before organisations could be given completion certificates and mainstreaming of disability by including it in B.Ed training, sensitising doctors and mainstreaming accessibility in architecture colleges.”

Dr Singh laid out some specifics. He wants the government to ban the derogatory and patronising word ‘divyang’ to refer to persons with disabilities. He singled out 3.3 under Chapter II on Rights and Entitlements of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, and thinks it needs to be removed as it is discriminatory. The law currently says persons of disabilities may not be discriminated against unless the reason to discriminate/discriminatory act achieves a legitimate aim. He also requested for the removal of ‘Limited Guardianship’ – wherein another person is allowed to make legal decisions on behalf of the concerned person with disability. The provision violates the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a United Nations human rights treaty of which India is a signatory, and is required to be in compliance.

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Popular Representation

Popular culture shapes our understanding of places and people through powerful stories. Bollywood movies influence popular imaginations a great deal and it has done an abysmal job so far when it comes to representing persons with disabilities. On watching the big budget, multi-starrer dud Zero, Preeti shared her reflections. She said, “We’re shown in extremes, either as an inspiration or in light of pity or sympathy. I remember watching Zero and feeling, do I have to be a scientist to be celebrated as an individual?” Nidhi illustrated Bollywood’s many errors and inadequacies through examples. She accused Bollywood of perpetuating charity, heroism and asexuality and the thought that disability is a burden. “Through Mann, it gives the message that you’re not equally worthy in a relationship. Through Khamoshi, it says, that disabled couples exploit their children to work. Zero shows that you could be a wheelchair using scientist but to prove your worth you need to pick a pen.”

While an exhaustive assessment of the Accessible India Campaign is pending, we as a society and as our extension, the government, continues to ignore the memo on how to be better to our fellow citizens with disabilities. It’s time we take conscious efforts to ensure we’re more aware and vigilant and know how to better support disability rights activists in amplifying their voices and holding the government accountable for its actions.

Picture Credit: azdisabilitylaw

This piece has been written by Rajkanya Mahapatra from Ungender.

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