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‘High on Tokenism’: The Struggles of Finding Work as a Disabled Person in India

Rights for the disabled in India are arbitrary at best, and offer little actual benefits, writes Abhishek Anicca.

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‘High on Tokenism’: The Struggles of Finding Work as a Disabled Person in India
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The Rights to persons with disabilities act, 2016 was supposed to substantially improve lives of persons with disabilities across India.

Unfortunately, that hasn't really happened seven years after the act became the law.

Rather than any radical change, the implementation of this law has been high on tokenism and low on benefits.

Examples of such tokenism are all around us.

A model polling booth is prepared to promote accessible elections while most polling booths remain completely inaccessible.

Government buildings have ramps which are inaccessible or have a steep curve.

Sign language interpreters in all educational institutions are still a faraway dream.

"Psychosocial disabilities are seldom talked about despite the growing conversation on mental health. Invisible illnesses are yet to be even recognized as a disability."
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Arbitrary Employment Eligibility Criteria

Amidst all that, what has really done a disservice to persons with disabilities is the arbitrary way in which reservations are implemented, which are fundamental for the welfare of the disabled.

These days, functional criteria for jobs are in fashion. One arm, one leg - eligible. Both Arm, Both legs - ineligible.

This reduction of disabled identity to functional body parts is not only ableist but against the spirit of the RPD ACT.

"Moreover, most of these functional eligibilities are prepared randomly without any advice from experts or representatives from the disabled community."

Persons with specific disabilities are deemed ineligible to even apply for jobs that they are perfectly eligible for.

A person with cerebral palsy is deemed ineligible for a teaching position at a university. Wheelchair users find it impossible to get employed in most government jobs.

Even educational reservations in academic institutions are opaque and some groups of people, like persons with hearing impairment, find it difficult to even get admitted to a college in the absence of sign language interpreters.

"The private sector is no better and most private educational institutions, as well as private establishments, have arbitrary rules about admitting or employing persons with disabilities."

Stigma and Harassment Live On

Even when disabled people somehow make it to government and private educational institutions and workspaces, they often face very hostile conditions, and are discriminated against when it comes to incentives and job promotions.

There is no internal mechanism for redressal of complaints.

"The constant questioning of their abilities, along with their harassment because of their disabilities becomes the twin features of the ableism that they face in day-to-day life."

This is where the second arbitrariness comes in.

The office of the commissioner of disabilities and the legal provisions against harassment were supposed to protect persons with disabilities. But these institutions are not able to give any concrete protection to the disabled.

Their harassment continues unabated, and they are typically unable to raise their voice to protect themselves, fearing loss of employment or further hostility from within the institutions.

"A related arbitrariness of this provision is that disabled people are not at the center of their grievance redressal."

Many of the protections offered by these institutions are so heavily dependent on the person occupying the chair that most disabled people are unable to even trust the system to provide them protection or justice.

Most of them are out on their own fighting a lonely battle for their dignity every day.

The third arbitrariness, which is beyond the scope of this law but crucial to the welfare program for the disabled is the issue of disability pensions.

Disability Pensions given by the state underlines the dismal nature of welfarism in this country.

Every state decides how much monthly pension it gives to persons with disabilities. This pension is as low as Rs 100 in one of the states. How is a disabled person supposed to survive on one hundred rupees a month?

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"Even the states which are comparatively better are irregular about paying this pension as disabled people are seldom high on their priority."

With the level of poverty and marginalization that persons with disability often face, it is almost impossible for many disabled persons to even survive and definitely impossible to live an independent life even if one wants to.

A minimum pension that helps disabled persons to survive is a matter so urgent yet is never made part of the political discourse.

In the pandemic era, this has become even more important as it can be one way to ensure that they have food security and access to health services.

'We Deserve A Life of Dignity'

Everyone, including the government often uses persons with disabilities for inspiration. In reality most persons with disabilities are forced to live in the margins, fighting for the right to live their life with dignity.

The arbitrariness in educational and work opportunities hurt the morale of young disabled people, most of whom face immense challenges physically, mentally and emotionally within their homes and outside.

"An effective system to protect them from any harassment and a reasonable pension which helps them thrive are the most basic everyday needs of persons with disabilities."

While wider social change about perception of disability is yet to take place, it is essential that their rights are implemented properly and not just for the sake of tokenism.

A strong welfare state that respects them and supports their dignified existence is fundamental to India’s development story. Only then we can move away from inspiration, and towards empathy.

The author, Abhishek Anicca is a writer, poet and researcher. He identifies as a person with disability and chronic illness.

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