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Enabling airwaves

By Lalitha Sridhar

It's been a long time coming, but India's first radio programme for the disabled is finally being broadcast every week from All India Radio Madras. If the response is anything to go by, this could be the beginning of a revolution for India's 70 million disabled

Since June this year, a small revolution has taken place on the airwaves: the country's first radio programme aimed at the disabled is being broadcast. each Thursday morning at 8.30. All India Radio's Madras A beams a 15-minute capsule that has been well conceived and meticulously executed.

With software provided by Ability Foundation, a cross-disability NGO, and the production handled by AIR itself, the past weeks have proved an interesting and cost-effective experiment in reaching out to listeners scattered across both the rural heartland and large cityscapes. What its makers did not quite plan on has been the tumultuous welcome their programme has received.

Says Jayshree Raveendran, Director of Ability Foundation, whose brainchild this initiative is, "The radio programme has created history in the disability world in India and also -- by their own admission -- at AIR. The response has been so overwhelming that we are ourselves awestruck at the magnitude of the task ahead and the responsibility before us. We've been touched beyond measure by the letters and phone calls that tell us that we have given a new use, another dimension, to AIR itself."

Noted actor-director Revathy Menon, who is actively involved in the programme, observes, "Are you aware that there are more than 70 million disabled people in India? In which case, there should, by rights, be a corresponding wealth of information available to people -- on counselling, guidance, education, jobs, available facilities, legal rights, human rights, travel concessions ... so much more!

"Yet, most people do not even know where to turn for initial problems like: 'My daughter has low vision and needs a school which is sensitive to her needs. Where do I go? Is a blind school the answer? Can I admit her in a mainstream school?' Or, 'My son is a spastic, a wheelchair-user, and has to appear for an exam and the hall is on the first floor. The authorities won't help, is there something I can do?'"

Scripted in Tamil, 'Thiramayil Disayil' (Towards Ability) is divided into three principal sections, the first of which is 'Arivom, Unarvom' (to understand, to realise) which provides useful information to the person with a disability, to the parent, the teacher and/or the caregiver.

Since the first step to demanding our rights is to know them, the 'Chattam Enna Chollugirathu' (what the law says) section looks into the rights and entitlements that are the due of disabled people, and their implications. Various aspects of the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 are discussed, since it recognises the rights of disabled people, and spells out the obligations of the government and the rest of society in ensuring and promoting the full participation of disabled people in society. Also in focus is the National Trust Act, which specifically looks at people with mental retardation, autism and cerebral palsy, whose specific needs are not covered under the PWD Act.

In 'Santhippom, Pesuvom' (we meet, we speak), there is first-hand information from eminent people, disability activists as well as policymakers, who elucidate new thinking and developments in this field. And finally, Revathy Menon answers one question per week in 'Neengal Kaetta Kaelvi' (the question you have asked), the helpline segment.

The presentation is upbeat and positive. Says Raveendran, "The idea is to get the disability sector out of the charity mode. We have to come out of this 'will you help me?' attitude of desperation and helplessness. It is not about being thankful for what is being doled out but to assert ourselves. And that can only come from empowerment that again comes from education. That will remain the focus of this programme."

Menon says: "A disabled person is a whole human being and needs to live a whole life -- the same as anyone else. Everyone is part of society and needs to live life to the fullest extent. And of course, everyone can! All it takes is the thought. The thought to provide the right environment and barrier-free conditions -- whether by making buildings accessible to everyone or by providing visual inputs for deaf people or audio inputs for the blind, making schooling inclusive, providing opportunities in employment, promoting independent living and recognising talents. All it takes is the thought. Of course it has to be put into action and hey presto, we find that there was a solution to the problem all along!"

Says Pushpam Bright, producer of 'Thiramayil Disayil' at AIR, Chennai, "We have been able to give constructive suggestions. For example, it was important to communicate in a chatty, lively and interesting style. But it has been a learning experience even for us. We all have sympathy but we do not know how to improve matters. Ability Foundation has been guiding us in the correct usage of terms and the manner in which messages are delivered. We have to be very careful and be politically correct -- we have to emphasise that there is no differentiation but rather, this is about integration."

Per-station sponsorship support per programme costs about Rs 700 (US$1=Rs48) and across the whole of Tamil Nadu, a programme of this duration needs only about Rs 4,000 of advertising support. One estimate puts the number of radio listeners in Chennai alone at 15 lakh (1.5 million). Says B R Kumar, Deputy Director-General, AIR, Chennai, "Although the initial schedule is slotted for six months, there have been plenty of sponsors coming forward. So we can certainly expect it to last longer."

Raveendran benefited from her interaction with Jean Parker of Empowerment Productions, an independent producer from Denver, USA. Parker, a visually impaired creator, producer and programme host of Disability Radio Worldwide, is quoted in an interview in Success & Ability (the Foundation's bi-monthly publication) as saying that her programmes, which discuss disability from a human rights perspective, get a surprisingly enthusiastic response from non-disabled persons too.

Raveendran hopes that upcountry stations will come forward to broadcast translated versions. Ability Foundation is also in the process of establishing a website designed for 100 per cent accessibility. Meanwhile, they have been receiving visitors, heartwarmingly appreciative calls, e-mails, and letters -- several painstakingly hand-punched in Braille.

Women's Feature Service, October 2002