India's disabled struggle for survival

By Sugita Katyal


NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Like many Indian girls, Laxmi dreamed of getting a job, finding a husband and having a baby.

Two years ago, those dreams came true. She married a young man who hitched a ride on her cycle, she now works in a beauty parlor and has a 4-month-old baby.

Not a remarkable story -- except for one thing.

Laxmi, 23, is a polio victim who hobbles on crutches and travels in a specially-designed, hand-operated cycle.

"I know I've been lucky," says Laxmi, who trained as a beautician at one of the country's few schools where the disabled can learn alongside the physically able.

Complaints about help for the disabled are heard in many countries around the globe.

India, a country of more than a billion people where millions of disabled live on the fringes of society, struggling to make a living, is no exception.

But critics say the situation is worse than in many, with the government is still grappling with massive poverty and trying to provide basic needs such as clean water and education.

Government officials say about 2 percent of the population have physical or sensory disabilities that include visual, speech, hearing and movement problems. But activists say the number is much higher because many are missed in census figures.

Javed Abidi, head of the National Center for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, says five to six percent of the population, or 50 to 60 million people, suffer from a disability.

"We've left six percent of our population behind to the point that they have become an invisible minority," Abidi adds.

LEGAL RIGHTS

Under the law, India's disabled are entitled to a host of rights. The Persons With Disabilities Act of 1995 says 3 percent of government jobs and 3 percent of seats in educational institutions should be reserved for the disabled.

The law also says public transport, including trains, buses and aircraft, should allow easy access to the disabled; sound signals should be installed at traffic lights; and pavements should be made wheelchair accessible.

But more than six years after the act was passed, few public places and institutions are disabled-friendly. Virtually no buses are wheel-chair accessible, the blind still cannot cross roads on their own and the deaf face a host of problems.

The government, which provides artificial limbs, wheelchairs, braille kits and other devices, says it is working toward a barrier-free environment but is hamstrung by a lack of funds.

"We need to do more in public places like railways, airports and transport but a lot of money is required," Rajwant Sandhu, joint secretary for disability, said.

The problems were highlighted last year when British physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease, visited India. The government had to build special ramps for him to see two of the capital's biggest tourist attractions -- the historic Red Fort and Qutab Minar.

"Accessibility is the main tool in integration. That doesn't just mean wheelchair access but also guiding blocks for the blind and sound devices for the hearing impaired," Shivani Gupta, a counselor at the Indian Spinal Injury Center in New Delhi, said.

Gupta has been wheelchair-bound since suffering a spinal injury 10 years ago.

SOCIAL DISCRIMINATION

But many of the disabled say that lack of facilities is the least of their problems.

What distresses them most, is the discrimination they face in a country where disability often means unemployment, social exclusion and difficulty in having an arranged marriage, still the most common form of getting a spouse.

The biggest hurdle, though, is finding employment. There are stray examples of a blind journalist or software programmer or a wheelchair-bound ad executive but most hold low-grade jobs such as phone operators, clerks and watchmakers.

The government employs the largest number of disabled and a number of companies, particularly in the watch-making, oil and auto sectors, have also opened their doors.

But many people with disabilities must try to make ends meet by hawking on pavements, operating weighing machines on street corners or simply begging.

Rajendra Singh Rana, one of 15 men in wheelchairs who live like a family on the streets of New Delhi, says he left his home in the central state of Madhya Pradesh because he could not bear the humiliation.

"There's no place for the handicapped. We live with each other as we're discriminated everywhere else," said Rana, sitting on a wheelchair, his shriveled legs crossed over each other.

Social workers and activists say a way of getting the disabled into the mainstream is to provide integrated education, instead of special schools.

"Early intervention is the key," adds Uma Tuli, founder of Amar Jyoti, one of the few schools that has disabled children learning side-by-side with able-bodied students.

"If disabled children are integrated with others and not sent to separate schools, employment for them will be much easier."

But activists and government officials say the long-term solution lies in prevention. The government has made a start with a campaign to stamp out diseases such as polio and leprosy.

"Providing employment is important. But providing quality health care to prevent disease is key to solving the problem," says Rama Chari, executive officer at the National Center for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.

10:04 01-09-02