Disability, Independence, and Inclusion

When one thinks of Stephen Hawking, words such as physicist, cosmologist, author and philosopher, rush to mind. There is, however, another word that is immediately associated with Hawking that does nothing to describe him: disabled. Today, July 26th, is considered the Independence Day for people with disabilities. This is to commemorate the fact that 26 years ago, today, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into action in America.

To put things into an Indian context, we asked Mumbai-based NGO, Atma, what the situation in India is, when it comes to people with disabilities and their access to basic resources. Our findings shocked us. According to official records, around 2 crores [20 million] of India’s population consists of children or adults with special needs; unofficially, this figure is believed to be much higher.

Only half of this number is literate. The other half either never get the opportunity to attend school, or they drop out. Latest census data also indicates that a majority of the disabled population lives in rural parts of India, the same parts that struggle with sufficient healthcare coverage, adequate employment opportunities, access to education etc. even for those born without disabilities. This context renders it almost impossible to imagine the lives of those born with disabilities and in areas such as these. What is fiction for you and me is a reality millions confront every single day.

Atma is attempting to tackle some of these challenges. The organisation is an accelerator for education focused NGOs in Mumbai. In 2015, with the sole aim on focusing more on the inclusiveness of those with special needs, the organization announced a special ed cohort comprising of NGOs like Urmi Foundation, Anandi, Maharashtra Dyslexia Association etc, with the end goal of capacity building these NGOs and making them sustainable in the unique programs that they run.

In 2014, Atma’s partner Sol’s ARC, a Mumbai-based Special Ed NGO, led the session on ‘Transforming Inclusive Education through Innovation’ and gave their feedback to the representatives of the Government of Maharashtra. This session was organized by the Observer Research Foundation in partnership with Atma. The steps taken by Sol’s ARC are beginning to see fruition. In January 2016, it was announced that the state government will give concessions in examinations to students with special needs from Class 1 to Class 9, as well as Class 11. Before this, only students with special needs of Class 10 and Class 12 were considered for concessions in board examinations. Sol’s ARC now works with 550 children with special needs across the city.

While we may not see the direct impact of this cause on our daily lives, it is important to understand it nevertheless. Going forward, here’s what we need to keep in mind while talking about the issues that plague this population.

1. Awareness is important. The challenge today is that all disabilities are vaguely categorized under the same umbrella as “disabled”. There are, in fact, different types and ranges of disabilities which require vastly different accommodations. The mother of a child with severe autism perhaps simply needs us to avert our eyes and show empathy while her son has a meltdown in the middle of the pasta aisle. On the other hand, a person in a wheelchair requires the appropriate infrastructure to be able to exercise his or her right to move freely in public places.

2. The lives of those who have disabilities becomes tougher when people judge them, or have certain biases towards them. We should make a conscious effort to avoid preconceived notions on disability encourage all ranges of talents in whatever way possible. Everyone is capable of giving and receiving friendship and empathy.

3. We need to change the conversation to be less on disability and more on ability. When we discuss Stephen Hawking, it is not his ALS that is the topic of the conversation. Instead, our discourse would include his path-breaking theories as an accomplished Physicist.

To further conclude this piece, here are some wise words from the man who overcame all odds in order to achieve abundant success.

“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically”.

– Stephen Hawking.

A big ConnectFor thank you to Mary Ellen Matsui, the Executive Director of Atma, for sharing her story with us!

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A Volunteer and a Beneficiary at Spirit 2016, A Special Olympics and CFCommunity Event held on February 14, 2016

To find volunteering opportunities with Atma, and other organisations working in this space, visit www.connectfor.org.

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