Friday, September 22, 2023

Time to act

Following an inspection of the Inter State Bus Terminal (ISBT) at Kohima, the Court of the State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) described its observation of the facility as one of great disappointment. Consequently, it prompted said Court to issue a directive to the Nagaland State Transport (NST) to renovate within three months all bus terminals in the State by providing basic accessibility as envisioned in the Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India of 2021. In the May 25 order, it also directed the Department to initiate immediate action to remedy the difficulties faced by PwDs in bus terminals, for which the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 was enacted. Time and again, we have seen similar expressions of the PwD community asserting their rights in a society that continues to be indifferent to their problems. If we are to establish a society that prides itself on diversity, it is crucial to create an inclusive environment for all members, including PwDs. This encompasses individuals with physical, mental, intellectual and academic disabilities. It is not only the responsibility of society, civic bodies and the Government, but also a moral duty to provide safe, accessible and secure space for them to thrive. Empowering the PwD community will not only enhance their lives but also improve the overall quality of life in our society ~ and education plays a pivotal role in this process. Apathy to Persons with Disabilities is not exclusive to Naga society. Even on a national scale, it is challenging to acquire an accurate estimate of the PwD population in India due to incomplete survey data; the 2011 Census projected the number of people with disabilities to be close to 2.68 crores, accounting for 2.2% of the total population. To put this into perspective, the PwD population in India, as per the 2011 Census, surpasses the entire population of Australia. On paper, India has taken significant steps to address the needs of PwDs, including ratifying international conventions like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and adopting laws such as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 (as cited recently by the Court of the State Commissioner for PwDs). However, despite these measures, PwDs continue to face limitations in accessing buildings, education, healthcare, public transport and various other rights. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, provides a comprehensive framework of rights, including free healthcare, barrier-free access to healthcare facilities, priority in healthcare services and inclusion in academic and social development. However, these rights often remain confined to paper, failing to translate into practical implementation. According to the World Bank, children with disabilities in India are five times more likely to be out of school compared to their non-disabled peers. That’s a disturbing reality all too clearly prevalent in Nagaland too. In 2015, the Union Government launched the Accessible India Campaign with the goal of achieving universal accessibility for persons with disabilities in the built environment, transportation systems and communication technology. Unfortunately, the extension of deadlines has hindered the timely fulfilment of these objectives. Furthermore, even those children with disabilities who manage to complete primary education often face significant challenges in progressing to high school. Various disabilities, such as physical impairments, sensory limitations, intellectual challenges, deafness, blindness and muteness present obstacles in the classroom setting. While Government schemes exist to provide educational aids, equipment, book allowances, transportation and support personnel for disabled children, the concept of inclusive education is still not fully comprehended. Nor do the authorities seem minded to implement the same, quite frankly. Inclusion requires increased participation of PwDs in mainstream activities, creation of accessible infrastructure, provision of tailor-made instructional materials and the reassessment of policies and reforms for continuous improvement. What is now needed is for all the paperwork to be translated to real ground-level action. On that note, the recent order from the Court of the State Commissioner for PwDs to the NST Department is a step in the right direction.