ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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'Divine-bodied' Disabled

Access to education and the labour market is abysmal among India's disabled.

In May this year India’s 2.68 crore persons with disabilities who constitute 2.21% of the total population (rights organisations put the estimate at 5%) got a new nomenclature. Henceforth, they were to be described as divyang (divine-bodied) rather than the hitherto viklang (disabled). The protests that followed said that the disabled wanted an enabling environment, not a new description. However, fulfilment of that demand would entail not only access to education and work skills but also jobs. The minister for social justice and empowerment admitted in the Lok Sabha in May that employment of persons with disabilities (PWD) has been “far less” than the specified 3% reservation in all categories of government jobs in the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act. In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court said that there is hardly any representation of disabled persons in the higher governmental hierarchy even though certain posts have been identified as suitable for them. This state of affairs ties in with the oft-repeated complaint by disability rights activists that the disabled are either not recruited at all or are expected to be grateful for employment in low-paying, lower grade jobs.

Over the years, the private sector has shown an increasing willingness to employ the disabled though it is nowhere close to what is needed. Some hospitality and retail chains along with information technology (IT) and knowledge companies have been proactive in training and employing disabled youth. The live registers of employment exchanges and special cells have an inordinately large number of the disabled looking for jobs though reliable data as to how many are actually employed is hard to come by. The International Labour Organization (ILO) report says that the employment rates vary with geographical location, gender, education and type of disability with the rural and women disabled bearing the brunt of low access to education and health services as well as vocational training and the labour market. It points out that “lower labour market participation is one of the main pathways through which disability leads to poverty.”

The apex court’s ruling quashed the central government’s confinement of reservation to Group C and D posts, the distinction that had been made between posts to be filled through direct recruitment and through promotion. The petition filed before the Court challenged the government’s policy that vacancies in Groups A and B (in identified and reserved posts suitable for the PWD) would be filled only through direct recruitment in the Prasar Bharati. This meant that disabled employees in the Groups C and D category were denied the chance of promotion to the higher ranks.

While this ruling clears the way for promotions for the disabled in government employ, disability rights activists observe that overall recruitment, whether in the private or the public sector, is hampered by sociocultural prejudices against the disabled. Again, disabled women face greater obstacles as compared to their male counterparts. Among those employed, the group that is most favoured is the one with locomotor disabilities and within that the ones with milder forms of it. The impediments in the way of implementing even the 3% reservation in government sector jobs are many and have been listed by rights activists. They include an unduly heavy dependence on the courts to enforce the guaranteed reservation and the identification of jobs as suitable for PWDs based on biased and whimsical assumptions about their capability.

The court rulings and media coverage coupled with the efforts of rights activists have all helped to ensure increased sensitivity to the disabled in government policies and society’s attitudes at large. However, given their share in the population and the efforts needed to help them access basic services and more significantly, education and employment, these efforts seem woefully inadequate.

The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act’s intent is to turn those whom it hopes to benefit into “agents of their own destiny.” Intentions must be backed by actions.

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