Disability in India

It is estimated that 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability—one out of every seven individuals, or just over one billion people. This number is concentrated heavily in developing countries, with between 40 and 80 million living in India alone. The 2011 Indian census reports 2.21% of the country’s population lives with some form of disability; unofficial estimates (including those from the World Bank) report a number closer to 8%. All reports refer to India’s disabled population as the largest minority group in the country.

This huge number of Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) is located in mostly rural areas, in which there is a clear correlation between poverty rates and the prevalence of untreated disability. PWDs in these resource-starved areas are unable to take advantage of social programs or technological advances to help mitigate their symptoms. The physical conditions of a life of poverty are at the root of many disabilities; malnutrition, poor sanitation practices, untreated diseases, environmental pollution, and lack of effective safety standards can cause and/or exacerbate disabilities. In addition, with nearly 45% of the disabled population in India considered illiterate, any pathway out of poverty is most likely out of reach.

The lack of disability-focused social programming serves to amplify discrimination and stigma against PWDs, compounding into damaging attitudes that remain deeply woven into the fabric of Indian society. These negative attitudes are particularly dangerous when considered alongside gender inequalities; disabled girls and women are disproportionately excluded from education and work opportunities, especially in rural communities. In this sense and many others, disability is inextricably connected to many of the social ills that plague the world’s largest democracy.

Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016)

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 came into effect on 19 April 2017, replacing the outdated Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995. It upholds the key tenets of United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by India in October 2007. The 2016 Act mandates that all public and private establishments in India publish an Equal Opportunity Policy and ensure that their facilities and benefits are accessible for PWDs, without discrimination in any form. It goes on to extend educational and professional benefits such as free primary and secondary education and a small increase in reserved government jobs to PWDs. In addition, it requires special courts in each district be reserved for cases involving rights violations against PWDs; discrimination cases can now result in a fine of up to Rs. 5,00,000 and/or imprisonment. 

The 2016 Disabilities Act expands the number of benchmark disabilities recognized in the 1995 Act to include the following:

  1. Physical disability, including:
    • Locomotor disability including leprosy cured persons, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, muscular dystrophy, and acid attack victims
    • Visual impairment, including blindness and low vision
    • Hearing impairment, including deaf and hard of hearing
    • Speech and language disability
  2. Intellectual disability, including specific learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder
  3. Mental behavior, including mental illness
  4. Disability caused due to chronic neurological conditions (such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease) and blood disorders (such as hemophilia, thalassemia, and sickle cell disease)
  5. Multiple disabilities, including deaf blindness
  6. Any other category as may be notified by the Central Government

With the RPWD Act, the population of PWDs in India have more comprehensive formal recognition in national legislation. The Act has met its fair share of criticism for its vague language regarding the necessity (but not the nature of) equal opportunity policies, as well as the lack of a transition timeline or government incentives for establishments to effectively provide services to disabled citizens. However, it serves its purpose as the most recent iteration in a progression of policies that are moving in the right direction—toward an inclusive India.

Disability & Livelihoods

With the RPWD Act, India has made a progressive step toward a society in which sustainable livelihoods are a right for all. Several non-governmental and nonprofit organizations are working to help PWDs overcome social stigma and become self-sufficient. These serve to address two cooperating drives: PWDs’ desire to live fulfilling and productive lives, and the Indian workforce’s need for more skilled labor. Organizations like Youth4Jobs Foundation are working to provide young PWDs with employment skills and job placements. Through a national network of training centers, young people with visual, speech and hearing, and locomotor disabilities learn the key skills required for service jobs and enter the workforce with as much (if not more) passion and success as their traditionally-abled colleagues. For more information on the impact of disability-focused livelihood programs, see Youth4Jobs' studies and reports.

Disability & art

There are barriers separating PWDs from professional success in virtually every field, including art. Artists may face difficulty when communicating with potential buyers or art representatives due to their disability. Their work may be devalued or sold at a lower price than it deserves, or pigeonholed into a category that does not respect the artist’s intentions. Disabled artists do not always create art to convey a message about their disability. Some may choose to use an artistic medium to share their disability experience (producing “disability art”), but others may produce art with more intersectional themes and messages. Regardless of the subject matter or method, disabled artists should be appreciated for their considerable talents and unique artistic visions, rather than patronized and confined to strictly one category. For more on the intersection between art and disability, see Disability Arts Cymru’s helpful website.

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