Not many of us are aware that we celebrate about 173 “international days” every year, which as per the United Nations, “serve as an indicator of the interest that a given subject attracts in each part of the world”. The UN says that “International days are occasions to educate the general public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity”.
One such day is the 3rd of December, which is observed as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This was proclaimed in 1992 by United Nations General Assembly resolution with aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. The theme for this year is “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post Covid-19 World”.
The WHO estimates that more than one billion people - about 15% of the world's population - experience some form of disability. Pertinently, it is possible that almost everyone will be temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in life. Despite this, perhaps we still do not have adequate mechanisms in place and the effort to fully respond to the needs of people with disabilities.
What is the status in India?
After the Act of 1995 was repealed, we now have the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which defines a “person with disability” as “a person with long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which, in interaction with barriers, hinders his full and effective participation in society equally with others”. As per the estimates of the 76th Round, National Sample Survey of Persons with Disabilities-2018, there are about 25.8 million persons with disabilities, which constituted around 2.2 per cent of the total survey estimate of the population. It is mind boggling to note that there are 184 countries (as per UN database) whose population is less than the number of India’s disabled population. Another worrying factor is that out of the total disabled population, around 10 per cent are suffering from multiple disabilities. It is a double whammy of sorts for such persons.
Amongst the types of disabilities, prevalence of locomotor disability accounted for more than 55 per cent of the disabilities in India. Hearing disabilities (deaf and hard of hearing) comes next with about 12 per cent while visual (blindness and low vision) disabilities and speech & language disabilities accounted for a little over 9 per cent each. The other types of disabilities (mental retardation and intellectual disability, mental illness & other disability) accounted for around 14 per cent of the disabilities.
Level of education amongst the disabled
Even under normal circumstances, persons with disabilities suffer from the lack of access to healthcare, education and employment, keeping them suppressed both economically and their overall integration with society at large. But specific provisions have been made in Chapter-III of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. For instance, Section 16 laid down the duties of educational institutions, Section 17 specified measures to promote and facilitate inclusive education, including measures to promote, protect and ensure participation of persons with disabilities in adult education and continuing education programmes under Section 18 of the Act. If such detailed provisions are available in an Act framed by the Parliament, it would be of interest to find out where disabled persons stand in terms of education.
Unfortunately, according to the above survey, illiteracy amongst the disabled is very high ranging from 50 per cent of persons with mental illness to almost 70 per cent of persons with mental retardation & intellectual disability. What could be the reasons for such high illiteracy amongst persons with disabilities? Is it the problem of accessibility and/ or affordability? It could be both, coupled with the absence of a congenial environment to accommodate such persons. Data also revealed that the percentage of disabled persons (across all types of disabilities) with a graduate degree and above are abysmally low, in single digit. If this does not portray a worrisome picture, then what is?
The lower level of education among disabled persons indicates the lack of willingness and effort to fully implement the various provisions of the Act wherein at Section 31 it provides for “Free education for children with benchmark disabilities” and Section 32 provides for “Reservation in higher educational institutions”. Forceful and dedicated implementation with regular monitoring of the various provisions of the Act is the need of the hour. All stakeholders will also have to introspect what has gone amiss in the existing educational system.
Level of education and employment (% distribution) among persons with disabilities
Disabilities hinder employment opportunities
Section 19 (vocational training and self-employment) and Section 20 (non-discrimination in employment) and Section 21 (Equal opportunity policy) of the Act provides a whole host of provisions on how systems are supposed to cater to the special needs of disabled persons. Just like any other person, they have every right to participate in various types of economic activities for gainful employment.
But in the face of low levels of education, it appears that the noble objectives as specified in the Act are yet to be fully translated into actual employment opportunities for this section of our society. As per the above said survey, we find that being disabled itself offers little or no opportunity for fruitful employment. Data says that as high as 60 per cent of persons with mental illness are not able to work due to disability. Similar trends are seen in other forms of disabilities. It is no wonder that not even 4 per cent of persons with locomotor disabilities find regular salaries / wage employment and less that even 1 per cent are employers.
Dedicating one day to celebrate an International Day of Persons with Disabilities hardly has any meaning if we are not able to bring solace to the immense hardships and discrimination that disabled persons faced in their daily lives. It is rightly said that disability is a development issue, and it will be hard to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged people without addressing their specific needs. Education and employment are two important issues (apart from healthcare), which warrant immediate attention of all concerned.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s Vision of a better future can only be achieved with the full participation of everyone, including persons with disabilities. It is to be noted that “disability” is referenced in various parts of the United Nations’ SDGs and specifically in parts related to education, growth and employment, inequality, accessibility of human settlements (SDG Goals 4, 8, 10, 11 and 17). If we as a country do not pull our socks and still move at a laggard pace, as is evident, we are bound to be left behind in achieving an inclusive development for all sections of our society.
D L Wankhar is a Retd Indian Economic Service Officer & Dr Palash Baruah is Senior Research Analyst, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER).
Views and opinions expressed in this article are personal