Thousands of disabled people protested in the Indian capital on Monday, demanding parliament pass long-awaited legislation that gives them equal rights including to education and employment.
Thousands with intellectual or physical impairments gathered to support the bill drafted for the country’s 40-90 million disabled people, who have long been among the most excluded and stigmatised in society.
“We have been waiting since independence for this, some of us even longer,” National Association of the Deaf president Zorin Singha said of the country’s estimated 18 million deaf people.
“This bill will change everything for us,” he told AFP, sitting in front of India Gate among a crowd of supporters waving placards that read,
“We want our rights, not your charity”.
Indian political boss Sonia Gandhi has pledged to push for the bill’s passing when the national parliament sits this week for the final session before her ruling Congress party faces general elections due by May.
But its introduction and passage through the chaotic and often dysfunctional parliament is uncertain, with 126 other bills already pending in the parliament which is set for a 16-day session.
Singha singled out the right to education as a highlight of the bill, which will guarantee that disabled students are entitled to teachers trained to meet their needs.
“Basically my school taught me nothing at all. The school had no teachers for deaf students and there were no alternatives. They just kept trying to force me to speak even though they knew I was deaf,” Singha said.
Some disabled groups have opposed the bill, which would replace one from 1995. They say the latest draft has been watered down, and for example does not define people with psychosocial problems as disabled.
But Mohammed Umar, who contracted polio when he was three and walks with crutches, said the bill would increase the chances of disabled people finding jobs.
“We are pushed into the margins of society. People won’t give us jobs, even our own families consider us a burden and this is especially so in rural areas,” said Umar from Jais city in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state.
The bill, modelled on the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, raises the quota of government jobs reserved for people with disabilities from three to five percent.
It also makes private companies accountable for creating a disabled-friendly environment for employees and visitors.
A World Bank study in 2007 said people with disabilities were among the most marginalised in Indian society, and 50 percent of people surveyed for the study saw disability as a “curse of God.”