Does anyone care about the woes of the disabled?

By Shruti Pushkarna

After a month-and-a-half of being locked up in our homes, deprived of social interactions, battling with the rising fear of losing out on existing means of earning, the Hindustani janata is grappling with the classic choice between the devil and the deep sea.

People are fiercely citing numbers in offline and online debates. What is worse, people dying from the virus or those succumbing to hunger? What’s more alarming, the growing rate of positive cases or the spike in unemployment data reported by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

There are layers to this poor vs. rich, privileged vs. disadvantaged contest. Let me add to the imbroglio. But before I do that, here’s a disclaimer. This is a losing battle.

Either way, no one wins. It’s really about softening certain blows and developing a response system for different kinds of crisis.

Economically weaker sections are possibly the worst hit. The media is continuously reporting cases to emphasise their plight, given no work, money, food or shelter.

While the liberal vs. bhakt media debate rages on, I believe that apart from the health workers, police and all other essential service providers, mediapersons are also putting a lot at stake to show up to work. Just so you and I stay informed of the latest happenings. (Again, steering away from any leanings) the media with its mass appeal can generate awareness and advocate for change in the status quo.

Accounts from Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) haven’t gotten their due share of public attention. This vulnerable group’s needs/challenges have not been fully considered during this medical crisis and the subsequent logistical breakdown.

One must understand that PwDs are at a disadvantage not only because of their impairment/ condition but also due to a lack of access to certain basic services. A majority of this population is denied proper education or opportunities of employment. They are discriminated against and pushed away from the mainstream scheme of things. For many, limitations in mobility coupled with weak economic status has resulted in a nightmarish existence during this pandemic.

A blind person from Washim in Maharashtra didn’t have means to recharge his mobile phone, which was his only connection with the outside world. With no access to the internet, he was unable to use any mode of digital payment. Moreover, he didn’t even have enough money to pay for it. Even though the government announced advance disability pension to be credited into accounts, he hasn’t received his due since December 2019. His complaints to the concerned department have been indefinitely deferred, with all resources currently deployed to deal with coronavirus. Fortunately, a blind volunteer in the district and an NGO provided minimum aid.

Other cases have also been reported from Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh where disabled people have not received the double pension promised by the government.

A blind person in Delhi needed to withdraw money from his bank account to get ration. One would think it’s easy to withdraw money in this digital age. But like thousands of other visually impaired people, he was never issued a debit card or given access to internet/mobile banking on grounds of his disability. This of course is against the basic rights stated in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 and the rules issued by the RBI. Dependent on public transport to go to his bank, few kilometers away from home, he had no choice but to accept ration being handed out by a local NGO. Despite having the money to pay, he was crippled by the discriminatory attitude of the banking sector.

Ill-treated by her kin, a deaf blind woman in Mumbai was desperate for help. She reached out to her neighbours but they declined any assistance. A friend finally came to her rescue and arranged for food supplies and money through volunteer groups.

There are persons with disabilities among the migrant workers and students stranded away from home. The government’s announcement of movement of these people between states has met with its usual set of challenges and criticism. While the media cries foul, questioning the responsibility of the central and state governments, another question to ask is about the arrangement for the safe transit of PwDs.

NGO helplines are abuzz with calls from disabled people across India, desperate for ration, medicines, money to pay for rent, electricity bills and other essentials. Individual and non-profit organizations dependent on donations are not equipped to meet the needs of 2.68 crore (as per Census 2011) PwDs in India. Lockdown restrictions make it even harder to organise help.

It’s imperative to voice these issues being faced by this marginalised section. The situation is here to stay and maybe even worsen. If our systems fail to address the problems at hand, we might soon see a new set of spiraling statistics.