Not even the most politically correct euphemism can gloss over the negative feelings, behaviour and social stigma this term evokes. Especially in India.

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One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, suffer from some form of  disability. And, persons with disabilities are more likely to experience negative socioeconomic outcomes than people without disabilities. According to the World Bank, “ India has some 40 to 80 million persons with disability. But low literacy, few jobs and widespread social stigma are making disabled people among the most excluded in India.” This is, indeed, a very sad commentary on the state of the Indian nation and its approach to people with disabilities.  

Defining disabilities

Disabilities is an umbrella term, which includes defects and damages that are physical and mental, have activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Disability is a deficiency that could be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or some combination of these. It substantially affects a person’s life and may be present from birth or happen during a person’s lifetime.    

Causes of disabilities

Most experts (with experience and expertise in this area of social and economic life), such as international agencies, governmental and non-governmental sources, have said that disabilities could be the result of a myriad causes including genetics, birth defects, medical issues during pregnancy and child birth, natural disasters, poor sanitation and hygiene, congenital diseases, malnutrition, traffic accidents, work-related accidents and illness, sports accidents, accidents at home, respiratory diseases, metabolic diseases, drugs and alcohol, high blood pressure, old age, poliomyelitis, measles – so on and so forth. The causes of disabilities can, and do vary, according to different age groups, between men and women.

Identifying the causes of disability by sex, place of residence, and most importantly, among different age groups, is vital if proper health planning, management and policy recommendations are to be carried out. The lack of investigation in India makes it important to explore the various causes of disability.

The scenario in India

People with disabilities tend to experience more adverse socioeconomic reactions and outcomes than individuals without disabilities – such as lack of access to education, poor health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates. The differently abled in India often bear the brunt of social stigma, cruel laughter, physical, mental and emotional violence and difficulty in being accepted by society. Unlike in the more developed nations, where life is made easier (by legal mandate) as far as access to public and private facilities and services are concerned, India lags way behind.  

In India, barriers to full social and economic inclusion, into the educational, social and work environment, of persons with disabilities include:

  • inaccessible physical environment
  • lack of appropriate transportation facilities
  • inadequate access to assistive devices and technologies
  • inadequate means of communication
  • lapses in service delivery
  • discriminatory prejudice and stigma in society

It gets worse when poverty is the environment that the disabled live in – increasing the risk malnutrition, reduced access to education and health care, unsafe working conditions, polluted environment, and no access to safe water and sanitation.

Global mandates for the disabled that India should follow

  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) promotes “the full integration of persons with disabilities in societies.” The CRPD highlights the importance of international development in addressing the rights of persons with disabilities. 177 countries have ratified the CRPD, which carries the force of binding law.
  • Lately, more and more bilateral donors have developed disability policies to guide their disbursement of international aid
  • At national levels, disability discrimination laws and constitutional provisions have increased significantly
  • The states that disability cannot be a reason or criteria for lack of access to development programming and the realization of human rights. The SDGs specifically focus on:
  • Education
  • Employment and decent work
  • Social protection
  • Resilience to and mitigation of disasters
  • Sanitation
  • Transportation
  • Non-discrimination  
  • The New Urban Agenda promotes measures to facilitate equal access to public spaces, facilities, technology, systems, and services for persons with disabilities in urban and rural areas

To quote the World Health Organisation (WHO), “An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives,” And, it is a crucial problem of mega proportions that needs fixing, rationally, quickly and effectively – socially, economically and culturally.

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