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Access to public places and buildings is restricted and often impossible. Doors are closed for schooling and employment. India does not appear to be mature enough and understanding enough to recognise people with disabilities for what they are – people.

Taking to the skies

Shreya Chaturvedi is 11 and lives in New Delhi with her mother Pratibha. Despite her disability she exudes an enviable zest for life. She bonds with her mother like a friend, and she says that while she wishes she could walk, nevertheless she has no complaints. “God has made me what I am, I’m happy the way I am.”
How many of us can say that we accept life with this enthusiasm?
Another person with disability demonstrates similar enthusiasm, and he has taken flight, literally. Sai Prasad hails from Lalgudi village in Trichinapalli. A congenital bone defect meant he could not use the lower part of his body. But Sai did not let this hinder him from doing something that many people without disability would shy away from attempting. Sai says he went skydiving because he wanted to demonstrate that even a child for whom the mere act of getting on a bus, or climbing stairs, or reaching school on time, is a challenge, can do something that shakes up the world.
Sai says that though his was a birth defect, his parents never showed any disappointment or sadness. Instead, they always exhorted him to study and become a better student; their viewpoint was that they could give him that much, and he would have to do the rest for himself. In order to ensure that he lived as “normal” a life as possible, his parents enrolled Sai in mainstream schools, but his experience was that often, at the end of the academic year, the school would ask his parents to remove him as the other children were being influenced due to his presence. Thus, he says, he changed schools frequently and it became something he was used to. 
After school, Sai enrolled in the Chaitanya Bharati Institute of Technology in Hyderabad, where he faced further logistical issues. His parents moved to that city in order to look after him but in public buses that were already overcrowded, there was no way he could get on. He bought himself a two-wheeler fitted with extra side wheels, and he says that the main challenge he encountered was not his disability, but the country’s infrastructural disability. It was a different story when he finished college and was placed in Infosys; for the first time in 22 years his parents agreed to let him stay by himself, away from them, and it was while training in the Mysore facility of Infosys that Sai experienced independence for the first time. He was able to do everything for himself, from cooking to washing clothes to moving around, and in those four months he realized that given adequate infrastructure, someone like him could easily live an independent life.
Sai then decided to go to America for further studies, where he found that there was access for the disabled everywhere, from the airport to the public bus to his university room. His room had been fitted out keeping his needs in mind, and he says that it angers him that in India, instead of being helped in this way, the disabled are told that their condition is due to sins of their past life. In the US, he says, good infrastructure nullified his disability so that he could focus on his ability. 
How do the disabled get around in public places in India? We take a look at a few basic locations. At the inter-state bus depot in New Delhi, it takes four men to get a wheelchair onto the ramp that is supposed to assist the disabled. For a disabled person, it is a heroic effort just to board a Blueline bus – and that too when it is not crowded. At a government office building in Bengaluru, it is impossible for a disabled person to enter without assistance, that too with great difficulty. Access for the disabled is supposed to be at the rear of the building, but in reality the approach to the ramp there is nothing but a tangle of weeds and rocky ground. It is a similar story for the disabled person trying to enter the General Post Office building in Mumbai. 
Not only is it difficult for the disabled to access most public areas, there are additional hurdles that make it practically impossible for them to go about daily life. In the midst of all this, there are still people who not just tackle life with a smile, they turn all these difficulties into a football and score goals. Krishnakant Mane is one such individual. Afflicted with an eye problem from the age of three, his eyesight began to deteriorate and eventually he was unable to see. But his zest for life remains undiminished. He completed his studies, became a software engineer, and today is a project leader at IIT with a 20-member team working under him. He writes poetry in his spare time, and climbs real mountains as well as the virtual ones created by a disabled-unfriendly world.
Krishnakant requests Aamir to call him KK so that, as he says, AK can interview KK. Asked why he took up trekking when it must be additionally dangerous for him, he says that there is danger in everything. If there were no danger, insurance companies would go out of business. He recounts how on a trek to Karjat once, an old lady had scolded the rest of the team for dragging the poor blind boy along, and they had to explain to her that it was the other way round – he was the one who had led them on the trek! 
KK’s childhood, he says, was as much like a sighted child’s as his parents could make it. They enrolled him in the same school as his sighted sister, and wanted him to be treated on par with other children, not given special allowances for being blind. They told him that he should never feel himself to be less than others, and at the same time he should be aware of his responsibilities too. “The world is not made for you; don’t take the world for granted. The world is going to be cruel and kind to everyone and that is how it should be,” is what they said to me, he recounts.
KK’s parents say that school after school would praise them for their aim of having KK study along with sighted children, but would say they could not admit him as they had no provision to teach him. Finally at King George School, after they heard “Come back tomorrow” every time they enquired, one day they took KK there wearing the school uniform, and they said that he would study there and nowhere else. In order that he should grow up just like any other child, his parents did not caution him to be extra careful or stop him from doing anything that other children did. They asked the school to let him to take part in all the activities, and not to think of him as any different from the other children.
KK says that technology is not just his eyes, it is an extension of his mind itself. He says that because of technology he is earning a good salary, is pursuing his research, and is independent. He also says that we cannot blame the government for everything – it is the attitude of our fellow human beings which needs to be blamed. When there are seats reserved for the disabled in buses, people don’t give them up to disabled people. People are told not to throw things and spit in public, but they do it without thinking that a disabled person could slip and hurt themselves.

Education for all

For Sai and Krishnakant, the key element was that their parents not only accepted them for who they were, they also ensured that their children studied in a mainstream school. But how many disabled children are able to study in mainstream schools? From villages and small towns to major metros, mainstream schools are unwilling to admit disabled children, families say. Under the Right to Education Act, every child has the right to education, whether disabled or not, but in reality most disabled children are deprived of a proper and full education because schools will not admit them.
Principals, school trustees and educators in the audience say that while they are willing to admit disabled children, parents of children without disability say they don’t want their child to study alongside disabled children, and will pull out of the school. This puts pressure on the schools and leads to them turning away disabled children.
Aamir Khan points out that by doing so, the schools are doing an injustice to not only the disabled children but also to the other children, by depriving them of the opportunity to interact with disabled children, learn from them, to help them and to progress side by side with them.Is it really so difficult to educate children with and without disabilities, together?
Amar Jyoti School in New Delhi shows that it is not. Founder Dr Uma Tuli shows us around the premises, where there are ramps to allow access everywhere to children on wheelchairs and using crutches, the stairs are shallow to make climbing easier, the doors are wide, and the floors are marked to assist blind children find their way. Special educators are hired to assist with teaching disabled children, and sports such as cricket, basketball and archery include all children. The parents as well as the children are happy with the school and its running. Amar Jyoti is a school like any other – with one difference. Its doors are open to all children, without any discrimination.
Dr Uma Tuli says that when she started teaching, 30 years ago, 15 children with disability and 15 without, people thought she was foolish to try something like that. But today, she notes, inclusive education is part of the national policy; it is in the Disability Act, in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What Amar Jyoti undertook was a difficult task to some extent but all difficulties can be surmounted with determination, she says.
Amar Jyoti Principal Seema Tuli says that it would be a dream come true if every town had an inclusive school, and Amar Jyoti would be glad to help with knowledge and expertise towards this end. 
Education is one aspect; how do we react to the disabled in everyday life? A World Bank study in 2007 found that 50 per cent of people in India think that a disability is punishment for sins committed in a past life. But when the polio eradication campaign has been so successful and has brought the incidence of polio down to such an extent that there have been no polio cases reported in the last 12 months, does it mean that sins have suddenly begun to be less? It is thus clear that disability has nothing to do with past lives. And yet, people continue to believe such myths, and as a result become desensitized towards the disabled, and treat them with callousness and contempt.
Nisha is a little girl who likes playing, climbing trees and running around like any child of her age. But there is a difference – Nisha suffers from a rare condition called lamellar ichthyosis, which causes her skin to be extremely dry and stretched, and her eyes to remain open as a result. She has no vision in one eye and about 60 per cent in the other. Nisha was adopted by Aloma and David Lobo from an agency where she had been left by her biological parents due to her condition. Aloma Lobo says that she crept into their hearts, and they and their five other children fell in love with her. David Lobo says that though Nisha’s life is difficult, she does not complain. “We realize that we cannot complaint when she is around – we complain about traffic, weather, everything around but she never complains,” he says.
Shamefully enough, our society can treat even such a little girl in the most disgusting of ways. Aloma Lobo says she was in a mall once when a lady who was with her friends, all well dressed and well spoken, came up and spat at Nisha. Mrs Lobo was aghast and asked how dare she do such a thing, to which the lady asked her how she could bring a child looking like that to a mall. Aloma Lobo took Nisha to the car, wiped her face and apologized for the rude adult’s behaviour, and Nisha, “with all the wisdom of a four-year-old”, said, “Mamma, what that lady did, that is not my problem, it is her problem,” recounts Mrs Lobo. She says she knew then that Nisha is special, because “I reacted, and she responded”.
David Lobo says that Nisha has accepted herself fully the way she is, and if all of us can be comfortable with and accept ourselves as we are, we can all become better people.
Ketan Kothari says that people seem to find it impossible to treat disabled people as people. When he was dating, he says, people would talk about him and his fiancée, saying “these people also do this”, as if he could not hear. And instead of addressing him, they address his companion. Terminology is also biased, he says, by labeling the disabled as “differently abled”. Illustrating what he means, he says, “Sachin Tendulkar is differently abled than Rahul Dravid, and Manmohan Singh is differently abled than both of them.” The reality is that we are disabled, and what is wrong with that, he says. He adds that Bollywood has also done blind people a disservice by portraying them as mostly beggars or singers, and not as characters in the mainstream of life such as officers or leaders. He says that more visibility is needed for people with disability in mainstream life, so that others will be better able to know and understand them. 
Rights of the disabled

Javed Abidi who works for the rights of people with disabilities, says that even by a rough estimate of 5-6 per cent of the population, there are some 6-7 crore people with disabilities in India. The official figure however is 2 per cent of the population, though in the US it is 12 per cent and in the UK, 9 per cent. This discrepancy is because uptil the 2001 census, disability was simply not registered in the census documentation. And disability did not find any mention in the first 10 of India’s five-year plans. Even with disability and inclusion being part of the 11th five-year plan, implementation has been disappointing, he says.
When posed with the question that when India is grappling with so many problems already, how can it afford to pay special attention to the disabled, Javed asks whether the disabled are not Indians. “Am I asking for any special favours?” he says. “I just want the same rights as every other Indian – the right to study, to work, to watch a film in a cinema hall, to play in the park.” The government’s attitude to the disabled is shown in import duties, he says. On gold the duty is some 12 per cent, similarly on artificial jewellery and cosmetics. But on wheelchairs the import duty was 30 to 40 per cent until it was reduced recently to 5 per cent. And he questions why even that 5 per cent. Why tax the disabled? When it comes to education, Javed asks whether we can name any one university in India which is disabled-friendly. And to make it so requires just the stroke of a pen, he says – and the will behind it. He calls on the education ministry and the University Grants Commission to derecognize universities which do not become disabled-friendly within the next 10 years.
Javed says that the employment scenario is just as dismal. Among the top 100 companies in India, only 0.4 per cent of employees are disabled. In the public sector this is 0.5 per cent but that is because of the 3 per cent reservation for the disabled in the public sector, he says. India has to decide whether it wants the 6 crore people with disabilities to stay at home or to be a part of the mainstream and contribute to the economy.
Positive steps>

Circumstances led Dr Rajendra Johar to be confined to the bed, and he was declared disabled. But he has turned the very notion of disability on its head, and from his bed has helped countless people with disability to gain education, employment and self-respect. Dr Johar is the founder of the NGO Family of Disabled, which helps people with disabilities from poor backgrounds to obtain education and work. 
When it comes to work, people shy away from giving jobs to people with disabilities, fearing that they will become a liability to the company. But here is one company which puts paid to that notion. Designmate, based in Ahmedabad, makes e-learning software, with 270 of its employees being people with disabilities. Being employed in Designmate makes the employees feel happy and productive, and the founder Captain Kamaljeet Singh Brar says that their dedication and good work has taken his company forward. The employees of Designmate also speak to Aamir via 3G link, and vouch for Capt Brar as an excellent boss. 
Working it out

When power lifter Joginder Saluja wanted to join a gym, he was told that there was no place for him there. So he found a solution – he started his own disabled-friendly, inclusive gym. Aamir Khan visits the gym and has a competition with him, in which Joginder emerges the champion.
The SMS question is: Should schools and colleges that do not become fully inclusive and capable of providing education to persons with disabilities within the next five years be de-recognised?
The performance at the end of the episode is a dance performance by members of Ability Unlimited, choreographed by Salauddin Pasha.

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