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Widespread prejudice, lack of job opportunities and official apathy – the differently-abled in the country have to battle more than just their physical disabilities in their struggle to lead respectable lives.

India is home to 60 million disabled people. Of them, 48 percent are visually impaired, 28 percent are movement impaired, 14 percent are mentally disabled and 10 percent have hearing and speech disabilities. These are the findings of ‘People with Disabilities in India: From Commitments to Outcomes,’ a report prepared by the World Bank in collaboration with the ministry of social justice and empowerment.However, NGOs say that the numbers will be much more once the 2011 census is completed.

“There needs to be an attitudinal change in the community. Just like you have physical ramps which help the physically disabled to go to an escalated height, we have to do a mental ramping for people to integrate the disabled population with the mainstream society,” said Poonam Natarjan, chairperson of the National Trust, a statutory body under the ministry of social justice and empowerment.

The body led a pan-India campaign “Badhte Kadam” last month, aimed at encouraging people to answer the questions on disability included in the census.But activists say the people’s discriminatory mindset may come in the way of putting an exact number to India’s disabled population.

“People generally don’t mind telling you that their neighbour has a disabled member in the family, but will shy away to admit that one of their own members is differently abled. There is a kind of shame in admitting that. Even doctors try to ‘treat’ disabled people, making them feel like they are suffering from some disease,” she added.

Awareness too is important to ensure that the disabled can benefit from the various government schemes. According to NGO estimates, almost 95 percent of the country’s disabled population has no access to education, employment and healthcare.

Javed Abidi, founder of the Disability Rights Group and chairman of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled Population (NCPEDP), said that it’s not just the society, but even the government discriminates against the disabled.

“What else would you say about most of the government buildings which are not disabled friendly? And this despite the Disability Law, 1995 saying that all public buildings should be disabled friendly. Even reservation for the community in the government and private sector is dismally low,” Abidi, who uses a wheelchair, told IANS.

According to Abidi, while the law says that there should be three percent reservation for disabled people in government jobs, the public sector employs just 0.5 percent disabled people. The numbers for the private sector and multinational companies are 0.2 and 0.05 percent respectively – an overall 0.4 percent employment rate.

Natarajan said that “much more needs to be done” at the policy level. Abidi said he was dismayed at the way the working draft of the new disability law, which will replace the “archaic” one, has been framed.

“We approached the social justice and empowerment ministry for a new law in October 2009 and the minister finally conceded to it in April this year and set up a 30-member committee to work on the draft. At the onset itself we had reservations against the committee because it had only three members from the disabled community, so there was hardly any representation,” Abidi said.

According to Abidi, the committee extended their deadline for the draft submission twice and have finally sought time until Dec 31 this year. Even then, the work done is “shoddy”.

“There are four laws which cover all persons with disabilities – the Disability Law of 1995, the National Trust Act, the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) Act and the Mental Health Act. The new law, as proposed by the committee, will put together a comprehensive legislation which will cover all the laws,” he said.

“However, the draft says that the National Trust Act and the RCI Act couldn’t be inducted because of “lack of time and space”. How much more time do they need? And as far as space is concerned, there is no specified limitation for that. I wish they had included more of us in drafting the law,” Abidi added.

The community now is pressing for a separate ministry on disability since they feel that their issues don’t get much importance in the current setup.

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