Indians with disabilities merit more attention
Nationwide triumphalism over the unexpected medal haul by Indians — the best ever — at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo has served to underline an embarrassing truth about Indian society: The egregious neglect of its disabled people. India has been participating in the Paralympics since 1988, but the games or the athletes rarely feature in media coverage in any significant way. Few Indians would have been aware of the two golds, one silver and a bronze that Indian Paralympians brought home in the 2016 edition at Rio de Janeiro. Now, a bunch of indomitable differently abled athletes have forced their way into national consciousness by more than doubling the medals tally (to 10) at the Tokyo edition and, in fact, outperforming their colleagues in the recently concluded Olympics. Their stories are worth celebrating.
It would be fair to say that at least part of the success has to do with government intervention. In 2017, the government created the “Khelo India” scheme that included specific provisions for promoting sports among people with disabilities and three sports bodies were recognised for this purpose, including a Paralympic Committee of India. Progress has been slow — only 60 per cent of funds allocated for infrastructure has been spent— but at least differently abled sportspeople have access to more special facilities and coaching centres than before. A Target Olympic Podium or TOP scheme offers support for high potential para-athletes — some 27 of them were supported for the Tokyo Paralympics.
More pro-active and sympathetic support from the private sector, which is the engine of sporting businesses the world over, could well have yielded even more success. It is telling that CEOs of automobile makers have now resolved to engineer special vehicles for two of the medal winners. This is heartening but much more needs to be done. Toyota, for instance, was one of the first major corporations to sign a sponsorship with the Worldwide Paralympic Partner. In India, so far, only one online platform had the foresight to appoint a Paralympian — Deepa Malik, the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympics (in 2016) — last year.
The success of these athletes is compelling because apart from the usual hurdles aspiring sportspeople (outside of cricket) have to clear in India — dearth of money, sponsorships, training facilities and so on — disabled people have to contend with a cruelly indifferent environment. Societal condescension or insensitivity is reflected in the design of public facilities and services such as hotels, restaurants, malls, offices, stadiums and public transport. Such basic equipment as ramps, handrails, grab bars or special toilets are conspicuous by their absence (the Delhi metro and privately-run airports remain honourable exceptions). This even though more than 26 million Indians suffer from disabilities. The system rarely works for them. For instance, the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act in 2016 to fulfil obligations to a UN convention stipulates a 4 per cent reservation for people with specified disabilities. But red-tapism bedevils this policy too. A government report suggests that less than half the disabled people in India have access to the “disability” certificate that entitles them to access government services or jobs or even to lodge a complaint against discrimination. They surely merit much more attention.