Barfi, what a wonderful movie…. The portrayal of the relationship and life of a differently-abled couple. There have been several others that revolved around similar themes, but this one got me thinking. What do we consider “Normal”? What does not fall under the ambit of “Normal”, and for those falling outside this ambit, have we created a society that is physically and emotionally comforting and accepting?

Let’s start with the basics.

A person restricted from or lacking the ability to perform activities within the range considered “normal” for human beings as a result of impairment is deemed disabled, or a “Person with Disability”/ PWD. Impairment includes physical aspects such as health; disability is the loss of functional capacity resulting from an impaired organ; handicap is a measure of the social and cultural consequences of an impairment or disability.

Recently, recognition and sensitisation around the use of the word “disability” has emerged. The word used in its place is “Differently abled” or “specially abled”, a recognition of the fact that while the disabled people might not fall under the ambit of “Normal” they bring with them heightened abilities in other areas.

To be ‘differently-abled’ is to be physically or mentally “disabled” but to possess qualities the able-bodied do not have. The expression is intended to avoid the perceived negative connotations of the prefix ‘dis’ in disabled. The motivation is a genuine attempt to view people previously labelled handicapped in a more positive light. At the same time, some hold a view that sugar coating is not acceptance, and hence another widely used term continues to be PWD.

India has long had policies and practices suited to the differently-abled, including collecting census information on the disabled as far back as 1872, and special schools and institutions for them since the 19th century. Like many countries, it also has provisions for people with mental illness and retardation under the Indian Lunacy Act of 1912.

The Constitution of India acknowledged also general state obligations to PWD in Article 41, and the State List under “Relief of the disabled and unemployable”. Subsequently, specific measures such as employment concessions have been introduced since the 1960s. However, it was not until the 1980s that policies committed to allowing the full participation of PWDs in Indian society evolved.

The outcomes of this policy shift were realised in several key pieces of legislation: (i) the Mental Health Act, 1987; (ii) the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (PWD Act); (iii) the Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992 and amended in 2000 (RCI Act); and (iv) the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999 (National Trust Act). The cornerstone among these is the PWD Act.

Even though PWD constitute a significant 5 to 6 percent of the Indian population, their need for meaningful employment largely remains unmet, in spite of the implementation of the ‘The Persons with Disability’ Act 1995. The act reserves 3 per centr of all job categories in the government sector for differently-abled persons and provides employment incentives for public and private sector companies having 5 per cent of their workforce comprising of differently-abled persons.

Today, the bleak scenario is that of the approximately 70 million differently-abled persons in India, only about 0.1 million have succeeded in finding employment in industries. In a survey conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), in 100 top companies in 1999, the employment rate of disabled individuals in the private sector was a dismal 0.28% and in multinational companies, it was 0.05%.

Yet, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that some companies have taken the lead in hiring differently-abled people. A leading chain of hotels identified a unique skill in people with Down Syndrome and hearing and speech impediments- i.e. their speed and efficiency in housekeeping. 13 per cnet of their employees are PWD. They have implemented enabling and training mechanisms to make these employees successful. Another Indian conglomerate has comprehensive policies and ensures that inclusion becomes an integral part of its culture and workings. Its hiring policy for PwDs is merit-based across all roles and not just in “identified jobs”. Differently abled employees are a long-term focus.

The IT solutions company provides assistive technology, transport facilities, and physical infrastructure to its differently-abled employees. It boasts of having PwDs at every hierarchy, from managers/supervisors to technical level and entry-level employees. The PWD constitute about 4 percent of another highly reputed Indian Group. They do tasks at which they are at low physical risk, required to make the least physical movement and that require minimum verbal communication.

Let’s examine the challenges organizations need to acknowledge and work on to make their work environments conducive for the differently-abled.

Infrastructure– Lack of adequate differently-abled facilities acts as a bigger roadblock than the condition itself and prevents the differently-abled from making valuable contributions to society. A lot needs to be done to revamp public infrastructure like foot-bridges, trains, buses, and offices to guarantee the differently-abled a comfortable lifestyle. A very small percentage of architects in the country (approx. 11 percent) have expertise or awareness of designs required to develop accessibility infrastructure for the disabled. According to the National Building Code, it is mandatory that all public places, not just airports, and railway stations, have infrastructure that makes them accessible to the differently-abled. Encroached spaces, raised curbs and bumpy pavements are some hurdles that restrict the mobility of the disabled.

The Delhi Metro is a pioneering project that has adhered to the needs of differently-abled persons by creating ramps at all stations, low-level control panels in lifts, buttons in braille, prominent colour contrasts and lettering, etc. The government has launched the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) to raise awareness of accessibility. The program’s focus is to make at least 50 percent of all government buildings in national and state capitals ‘fully accessible’ for the disabled by July 2018.

Manager and co-worker sensitization– Unfortunately, mindsets concerning the differently-abled still need to be addressed. The very use of words like “Normal” and “Disabled” is divisive. Secondly, often the Dis-inclusion is not done deliberately. A recent observation- I conducted a workshop at a very progressive organization working on a wide range of diversity initiatives. One of the participants was differently-abled and she fully participated in the event. At the end, a group photo was taken on a raised dais. As there was no ramp, she could not be a part of the photo. Now- it was nobody’s fault….no one wanted to exclude her. It just happened. It will need constant reminders, re-interactions, sessions, dialogues, and discussions for all of us to become more observant, attentive and responsive to special needs.

Create a level playing ground– Recently our team went as scribes for visually impaired for their exams. That there awareness level and the level of infrastructure and education available to them was dismal would not be wrong. The kind of exposure, education, care, infrastructure children with disability need is far more intense than what is available today, and possibly only to a select few. The facilities need to be broad based and need to reach the larger mass.

In India, the number of the differently-abled is large, their problems complex, available resources scarce, social stigma widespread and people’s attitudes towards the PWD damaging. Attitudinal barriers engrained as India’s historical response to the differently-abled must be changed through education programs. These programs require financial and collaborative commitment from key national and state education stakeholders, and partnerships with universities to support research-based initiatives. Legislation too can eventually bring about substantial uniform change. Although legislation cannot alone radically change the fabric of a society in a short period, it can nevertheless, increase disabled people’s accessibility to education and employment, public buildings and shopping centers, and means of transport and communication. To accomplish this task it’s necessary to change the public’s attitude, remove social stigmas, and create a barrier-free environment.

~ By Sonica Aron, Managing Partner, Marching Sheep