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Tejas brings education and independence to disabled rural women

The Disability Law Unit, an organisation fighting for the rights of disabled people, has started a rural initiative called Tejas that aims to make disabled rural women economically independent

Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide things we need to lead our lives -- job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I'm living in a wheelchair. -- Judy Heumann, American disability rights activist in the book No Pity by journalist Joseph Shapiro

Across continents, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, a team of seven activists with disabilities has begun the battle for these very same rights: job opportunities and a disabled-friendly environment. As has the Disability Law Unit (DLU) of Vidya Sagar in rural Tamil Nadu, which has remained in the shadow of the civil rights movement for people with disabilities.

On December 2, 2004, the DLU started a rural initiative called Tejas with the objective of bringing economic independence to rural households managed by disabled women.

Why villages first? Says S S Smitha, assistant coordinator at the DLU: "Rural disabled women are the worst hit as far as civil rights go, as they have no access to education at any level or means to earn a livelihood. There is no disabled-friendly transport in rural areas and the village schools are not barrier-free. As a result, parents prefer to retain girl-children with disabilities at home so that they can tend to their younger siblings and help with the domestic chores. We believe there is at least a 80% illiteracy rate among this group."

Consequently, finding them employment becomes an uphill task and, adding insult to injury, there is also the stigma attached to people with disabilities. Smitha believes the stereotypical image of a disabled woman having no future and being non-productive is common in rural societies and is cause for alarm.

"Our experience has shown a definite increase in the abandonment of infants with disabilities, even foeticide. But if disabled women were to demonstrate that they can be independent, this can change perceptions and sensitise a whole community."

Through Tejas, the DLU hopes to facilitate economic independence among disabled women by providing them education and employment training in handicraft and rural industry. In addition, Tejas has roped in women activists with disabilities to help identify beneficiaries and organise them into self-help groups.

The accent, however, is on inclusion and in organising mixed groups of non-disabled and disabled women. Sensitisation and change can be brought about only through a community-based approach to rehabilitation.

The organisation's first task was to remove the hurdles in getting universal, inclusive primary education. DLU coordinator, Rajiv Rajan, explains that only 8 of 100 disabled students entering primary school complete 12 years of education. "When the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (education for all scheme) was implemented, they decided to leave out children with disabilities of over 80%. This will water down the mainstreaming of those with disabilities, and the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities Act," he says.

Unwilling to buy the government's argument that people with over 80% disabilities (mental, learning or physical) cannot be educated in mainstream schools, Rajan says the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was introduced without giving teachers training in educating children with special needs or appointing enough special educators. "The government is trying to banish children with a high degree of disabilities to special schools, where, very often, they are not expected to excel in academics. Peer learning, seen with non-disabled children and disabled children in inclusive schools, ensures a more efficient learning process," says Rajan.

The DLU plans to tackle gaps in the implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act through its legal aid cell. "But we hope public interest litigation will be our last recourse for speedy justice. Our focus will be on creating awareness about inclusive education, employment and non-discrimination or access."

Though creating awareness has been a slow process, it has worked in some areas. Among its successes the DLU counts the disabled-friendly architecture of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS). "While the Southern Railway was aware of the stipulations of the Central Public Works Department, a few railway stations in the first phase of the MRTS project did not provide them. Some positive lobbying ensured that ramps and other access structures were added to the existing stations, and further projects conformed to the norms," says Meenakshi B, a cost accountant working with Vidya Sagar.

There's the other side of the story too. When, after an accident that left both his legs paralysed, Jayakumar, an engineer working with a national PSU, attempted to rejoin the organisation and asked for changes in the workplace, he was met with a lot of resistance, says Meenakshi.

And there's the case of Kotturpuram Park. On the eve of World Disability Day, December 2, the Chennai Corporation threw the park open after putting up a ramp, levelling pathways and sanding the play area. Providing access to one park is tantamount to trivialising the access issue, say activists at the DLU.

The DLU may be forced to rely on public interest petitions for speedy justice. To this end, the legal aid cell has enlisted the help of a panel of 12 lawyers who have been taking up pro-bono work. So far, they have nine cases and are in various stages of pre-trial negotiations.

Since its inception in September 2003, this brotherhood of disabled rights activists has become a regular in the corridors of power as they lobby hard with civic and transport authorities. Sustained campaigning with the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, the Chennai Corporation and the Metropolitan Transport Corporation is finally delivering results. It would appear that this new rights approach of self-advocacy is making even the most fixed of bureaucrats sit up and take note.

Contact: Disability Law Unit (South)
Vidya Sagar
No1, Ranjith Road
Chennai 600 085
Tel: 044-22354784/22354785/22354980
Fax: 044-22353757
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

-- Krithika Ramalingam
(Krithika Ramalingam is a Chennai-based development journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004