A Journey from Invisibility to Active Citizenship of People with Disabilities in India
“A great revolution is never the fault of the people, but of the government.”
-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Swabhiman’s mission is to strengthen the disability movement through research, training, advocacy, and public education for full and equal participation of people with disabilities in the country's mainstream. We believe people with disabilities are equal partners in all respects and all fields and should get the right to equality of opportunity, living with dignity, and to information. We believe that disability is a human rights’ issue. We embrace and values the differences in people. This initiative was necessary because a lamentable gap could be felt between the provisions made for the disabled and their implementation which needed to be filled. It was because of the efforts of many people with vision, including Dr. Sruti Mohapatra, who were determined to amend this lamentable gap by restructuring the system that marginalized and overlooked the already marginalized- Persons with Disabilities.
The journey for this reform has been long and fruitful, from 1996 to 2010, in the state of Orissa. The resistance and resilience were for appointing a Commissioner for persons with disabilities separately because despite the old PwD Act, 1995 that clearly stated in chapter XII, “The Central Government may, by notification appoint a Chief Commissioner for persons with disabilities for this Act”, approximately, 10.21 lakh people with disabilities were yet to have a disability commission and full-time disability commissioner to hear the injustices they suffer, to lend an ear to their grievances, and to alleviate their sufferings. Already many different organizations, individuals, and networks spoke up for the appointing of the Commissioner, but the deep-rooted systemic and bureaucratic loopholes somehow subdued them.
It was only on March 27, 2010, that a large number of people—more than 220 persons with a disability from 21 states along with their family members and organizations—assembled in VRC under the dynamic leadership of Dr. Sruti Mohapatra, Chief Executive of Swabhiman and convenor of Orissa State Disability Network (OSDN). It was on this day that they witnessed the glorious formation of an Independent Disability Commission with a full-time Disability Commissioner in Orissa. This day will go down in history as victory and vindication!
As briefly stated above, the PwD (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 the government mandated the appointment of a disability commissioner (Clause 60, section (1) states - Every State Government may, by notification appoint a Commissioner for persons with disabilities for this Act.) However, regardless of that, 15 years passed without the law being implemented and the government for the longest chose to turn a deaf ear to all petitions, appeals, memorandum, and rallies made by many individuals and organizations. It was only when the persons with disabilities and organizations came together that they won fair and square. They fought for their rights and started a revolution.
Almost all organizations working in Orissa, across disabilities, across districts, and across networks, united and demanded an Independent Disability Commission with full-time Commissioner on 21 February. Under the aegis of United Voices for Disability Equality (UVDE), a platform created by Dr. Sruti Mohapatra for the persons with disabilities, people met and demanded the appointment of the Chief Commissioner before ensuing the Assembly session for immediate redressal of the problems of people with disabilities. Committees were formed to meet the Chief Minister and the leader of the opposition for submission of the memorandum. Leaders and representatives of the Orissa State disability Network, Orissa Vikalanga Manch, All Orissa Association for the Welfare of Orthopaedically Handicapped, Orissa Disabled Persons' Network, Orissa Association for the Blind, Father Parent's Association, Orissa Association for the Deaf, OLS, National Forum of All India Leprosy Society- Orissa Chapter, and Orissa State Disability Network attended the meeting.
Letter Sent by SWABHIMAN to NGOs provoked and stirred emotions and finally brought about a revolution—Odisha appointed its first Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities.
“It has been a long journey since 1996 since the PwD Act was passed by the Parliament in 1995. It mandated the establishment of DISABILITY COMMISSION and appointment of DISABILITY COMMISSIONERS. We are yet to have the basic mechanism in place to address our needs. Neither is the government sensitive to our issues nor does it listen to our demands. 18 states to India have independent DISABILITY COMMISSIONERS. Our appeals have fallen to deaf ears. Let us come together, cutting across disabilities, districts, and organizations. More than 100 participants (persons with disabilities) from across Orissa wide converge to discuss and debate to present a memorandum to the state government for the IMMEDIATE FORMATION OF A DISABILITY COMMISSION in Orissa.”
The journey of Swabhiman has been long and tedious and its contribution to electing a Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities is one that will be remembered for a long time by the people whose lives it has touched. It is and will be talked about in the narratives of the lived experience of the most marginalized- Persons with Disabilities. The most significant difference Swabhiman has made, with the Disability Commissioner, in the lives of the people with disabilities is that it has created a space exclusive for them to be recognized and realized rather being invisibilized and shunned to the peripheries till forgotten like before. Swabhiman strives to continue playing a significant role in bettering the lives of people and making them FEEL more human, something that can be stripped off very easily in the big bad world where people of authority remain myopic in their vision and are driven by individual motives. Swabhiman will continue to be resilient and resist the war against human rights, especially for persons with disabilities while basking in the glory of the battle's already won.