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Getting grounded on the disability issue

Disabled activists being humiliated on domestic flights make headline news. But the daily travails of the disabled who attempt to travel by bus, rail or tram never get any attention. Isn't it more important to ensure that the poor and disabled are brought into the arena of rights, asks Shampa Sengupta

People with disabilities

All those working for disability rights in India were outraged at the treatment meted out to activist Jeeja Ghosh by Spicejet Airlines whilst on a flight from Kolkata to Goa where an international seminar was being held. The media gave the incident ample coverage, alleging that such behaviour towards disabled passengers was totally unacceptable. Several groups came together to express solidarity and to organise a protest meet in Jeeja’s home city  Kolkata. More satisfyingly, it was soon learnt that India’s newly appointed chief commissioner of disabilities had issued a show-cause notice, based on media reports, to the concerned airline.

The question here is not that Jeeja Ghosh was treated badly on a particular airline. There have been countless incidents like this in the past; some have received media coverage, some not. Whenever activists come across such situations, they raise their voice. Some of these make the headlines, some don’t. That’s why there was no real surprise when, within days of the Jeeja Ghosh incident, another disabled activist Anjlee Agarwal endured similar humiliation  on a flight from Delhi to Raipur. Indeed, such experiences are an intrinsic part of the life of disabled people and we are proud that Jeeja and Anjlee had the guts to put up a fight. Both women work to mainstream disability, with one of them focusing on the issue of accessible environments.

The disability sector has begun re-examining civil aviation policies and rules, and discussing and demanding changes.

But what of the large number of disabled people who face regular harassment whilst travelling by other modes of transport -- buses, metros, trains or trams? What about the attitudinal barriers disabled people face when they try to use public transport? One does not have to be an activist to see that poverty and disability often go hand-in-hand. So, while many of us spend our time thinking about making the ‘skies’ inclusive, let’s also try and make the ground beneath our feet more inclusive.

There are numerous instances of disabled people coming up against attitudinal barriers whilst travelling in buses. Only one made it to the headlines of a newspaper. Bidyut Dey, a 50-year-old man with an amputated leg, was thrown out of a government bus when he claimed he had the right to travel without a ticket. Dey, a West Bengal government employee, organises sports events for disabled people. He travels all over India with a cricket team comprising disabled youngsters. He refused to let the incident go unreported. He lodged an FIR and followed the case regularly. He was ridiculed by the police for taking up such a “trivial” issue; the magistrate who heard the case was shocked that anyone could refuse to buy a ticket and claim that it was his right not to do so! Neither the police officer nor the magistrate appeared aware of the Persons With Disabilities Act despite it being in force for 12 years!

Disabled people have learnt to accept this. Like they have accepted the problems they face commuting every day.

I remember when Jeeja and I were co-workers, Jeeja faced similar harassment whilst travelling in a mini-bus. Being a fighter, she never let things go. She issued a formal complaint with the Bus Workers Union, and was given a formal apology. But such instances of resistance remain isolated, as even the disability sector has never made a consolidated effort to make it a priority issue.

On December 3, 2011, a group of 10 blind people were not allowed to board a bus. The conductor didn’t let them on because he believed there were only two reserved seats in the bus marked ‘handicapped’, and anyway blind people did not pay for their tickets so he was not obliged to give them a ride! The group was on its way to join a rally organised for World Disability Day by West Bengal’s largest disability network Paschim Banga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani. When political activists are barred from joining rallies or meetings, it makes headline news. But such infringements of the right to join a rally by disabled people were ignored by the media despite the rally itself receiving coverage in the press.

People with ‘invisible’ disabilities suffer other kinds of harassment on buses. Joyeeta Ganguly, another colleague, told me about a common experience. Although Joyeeta has a 100% hearing impairment, most conductors believe she is not entitled to a ‘handicapped’ seat or a free bus ride. Carrying a disability certificate and showing it when required does not always help. Often, conductors believe she is ‘acting’ disabled in order to get a free ride! I am not even attempting to include here the experiences of people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.

There have been meetings, demonstrations and calls to make the railways accessible to all. Likewise, demands to make buses and bus terminuses disabled-friendly. Bus drivers and conductors should be taught to be more sensitive to the issue of disability. The National Institute of Professionals that runs computer classes for the blind has made some attempt towards this end. For the last two years, they have been tying rakhis on the wrists of bus conductors/drivers, on Raksha Bandhan. The rakhis are tied at a central Kolkata bus depot by disabled girls. Thus, a popular religious and social festival is used as a platform to establish a bond of friendship between those who are disabled and those who are not. On one occasion, a visibly moved bus conductor grabbed the mike and announced that from that day on he would make an extra effort to take care of disabled passengers. There are reasons to believe these kinds of sensitisation programmes do have far-reaching consequences.

However, the onus of mass awareness campaigns cannot lie only with NGOs. Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which India is a signatory, mandates that state parties adopt immediate, effective and appropriate measures to raise awareness about the issue of disability in society. There are provisions for awareness-building in both the Persons with Disabilities Act and the National Trust Act. The National Trust website claims Rs 80.01 lakh was spent in 2010-11. The draft country report ‘Poised For Change’ offers ideas on the kinds of activities taken up by government agencies to raise awareness. Unfortunately, however, many of these programmes talk to the converted.

If the non-disabled community is not sensitised, then the dream of building an inclusive world will remain just that -- a dream.

Yes, it is important to document cases of discrimination faced by disabled people during air travel. It is important to review the existing civil aviation rules and policies, and to punish offenders. But should we not prioritise our work so that we can bring the poor and marginalised disabled population within the arena of rights? If we leave behind the masses and try to take off towards the skies, will we be able to navigate the disability rights movement in the right direction?

(Shampa Sengupta is a Kolkata-based activist working with gender and disability issues)

Infochange News & Features, April 2012