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India and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

11 December 2011

David CobleyDavid Cobley is a doctoral student in IDD investigating economic empowerment strategies for people with disabilities in Kenya, India and The Philippines.  David has worked in the field of disability for 23 years, including managing a care home for adults with learning disabilities

The 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities marked a watershed moment for the worldwide disability movement, but can it really make a difference to the lives of millions of disabled people around the world, many of whom are living in conditions of extreme poverty? This was one of the questions on my mind when I visited India, one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Convention, at the beginning of this year.

At the national level, there was no doubt that efforts were underway to address some important disability issues. A lack of reliable data on the scale of disability in India is widely acknowledged. The 2001 Census, for example, reported a prevalence rate of just 2.13%, while many organisations working in the field estimate the rate to be at least three times that. At the time of my visit, household data was being gathered for the 2011 census, and careful preparations had been made to ensure that the mistakes of the previous census, when the question on disability was inserted at the last minute, were not repeated. The disability question had been given greater prominence on the census form, and enumerators had been given special training on how to raise the topic with sensitivity. Local NGOs were supporting these efforts, by distributing leaflets urging families to answer questions honestly and not to hide their disabled children, out of shame.

Another important Government-led initiative, underway at this time, was a national consultation exercise in preparation for a brand new Disability Act. The new Act is designed to promote the full participation of disabled people, reflecting the ideals on which the Convention is based, and to address the inadequacies of India’s existing disability laws, which have been heavily criticised for their inconsistencies and poor implementation. This consultation exercise was being viewed with suspicion in some quarters, with several disabled representatives having resigned from the consultation committees, in protest at their views not being taken seriously enough. However, other disabled committee members, whom I met with, felt that the Government was making a real effort to engage with the disability community, in line with Article Four of the Convention.

Mobile telephone service

Crippled from birth, this man takes his hand-pedalled wheelchair through streets near Chandni Chowk to offer phone services which he operates via a car battery and antenna system -- giving a different meaning to "mobile phone"! Photo credit: Meena Kadri

While the Indian Government appears to be demonstrating some commitment to meeting its obligations, under the terms of the Convention, real change is unlikely to come about unless Indian society itself becomes more accepting of people with disabilities. During the course of my visit, it became increasingly apparent to me that this may actually be starting to happen, at least in the areas that I visited. In the formal sector jobs market, for example, there were signs that private sector companies have, in recent years, become increasingly open to employing disabled people. In Bangalore and Chennai, I visited several disability organisations that were running job placement schemes, and all of them were reporting placement rates in excess of 70%, for disabled clients that had completed vocational training programmes. One scheme manager felt that there had been a “sea change in attitudes over the last five years, with parents now believing that if they educate their disabled children then there will be job opportunities for them.” Further evidence of a positive shift in employer attitudes was gleaned at an employability conference in New Delhi, on February 18th, at which several employer representatives revealed that their companies were now starting to recognise a strong business case for employing skilled disabled persons, with many proving to be particularly loyal employees, as well as frequently outperforming their able-bodied colleagues.

In rural areas, where the majority of disabled people live, prospects of formal employment are much slimmer. However, the rapid proliferation of disability self-help groups appears to be empowering disabled people on a huge scale, enabling them to engage in economic activity, as well as raising their status in society. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the State Government have supported the formation of around 8,000 disability self-help groups, across the poorest districts of the State, providing them with seed money to support group income-generating activities, as well as enabling the groups to provide individual business loans to their members. The majority of these groups have been linked with local banks, enabling them to gain a credit rating and providing access to larger loans. The disabled beneficiaries of this scheme are identified by the communities themselves, by a process known as ‘participatory identification of the poor’, in which whole villages are mapped out and community members are asked to identify where the most vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, are living. My conversations with beneficiaries revealed that many value the social benefits of this scheme above the economic benefits. One self-help group member, for example, stated that “before, our status was not recognised in the community. Now we have gained recognition, and others want to join the group”.

These may be just fleeting impressions, but I returned from India with the feeling that there is now a sense of genuine hope and expectation, among people with disabilities and the organisations that represent them, that Indian society is starting to view disabled people as potentially active citizens, rather than passive recipients of charity. India’s ratification of the Convention may not be the sole reason for this, but it has certainly played a role in raising the profile of disability within the country, while encouraging both the Government and NGO sectors to take account of the views of disabled people themselves. These impressions suggest that Indian society may be starting to move towards becoming more inclusive as well, thus creating space for the Convention to have a far greater impact.

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