First NPRD Conference :A New Chapter in the History of the Disability Movement
Kanti Ganguly, Muralidharan
DECEMBER 6-9, 2013. Place: Kochi. History was in the making. And the authors of this report were not just witnesses. They were proud participants as well. For the first time ever, elected delegates from different cross disability organisations in the country assembled in this city of Kerala to script a new chapter in the history of the disability movement in the country. And write they did with honours. It began at the Marine Drive. Thousands of disabled persons reached there. Rally they did, in their thousands and from all the districts of Kerala for the open session of the first conference of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). The mobilisation was unprecedented in Kerala, as far as the disabled were concerned. The blind, the deaf, people with locomotor disabilities, autism, cerebral palsy, mental illness, those with intellectual disabilities and their parents and a host of other disabilities both obvious and not so obvious were there. Some came in their wheelchairs, others with crutches, canes and other assistive devices – the diversity of both, disabilities as well as needs and issues and how they have to be addressed were very much in evidence. And truly as the occasion demanded, a disabled person, C N Karunakaran, former chairman, Kerala Lalith Kala Academy and an acclaimed painter, presided over the public meet. The meeting began with a blind playback singer, Vaikom Vijayalaxmi, mesmerising the audience with her songs. After the welcome address by V P Saseendran, general convener of the reception committee, some disabled persons who had made a mark were introduced on stage. Inaugurating the meeting, Brinda Karat, who during her tenure as an MP had consistently been raising issues of the disabled, began by referring to the exploits of the disabled persons who were introduced who she said had “endeavoured to teach India a lesson that the disabled have the capacity to overcome all kinds of disadvantages. They have proved that their spirit is stronger than their body might allow them to be. Yet while we celebrate their individual achievements, today the question that we ask is why is it that India today is still not a society which is friendly to those with disability? A society which does not accept and recognise the citizenship rights of every citizen, is itself disadvantaged, is itself disabled and it is that society which needs to change.” She called for a change in social attitudes that are discriminatory in nature, for the treatment of persons with disabilities as “not objects of charity but to be recognised as equal citizens with equal rights.” NPRD convener Kanti Ganguly, patron of the reception committee M V Govindan and P Mohanan general secretary of the Differently-Abled Welfare Federation also spoke at the meeting. The conference was formally inaugurated on December 7 with the flag of the Kerala affiliate (DAWF) being hoisted by DAWF president O Vijayan. A band from a local school for blind children played in the background. Following the election of a five member presidium consisting of Jhansi Rani, Sailen Chaudhury, O Vijayan, Mayarani Das and Usman Pasha, proceedings commenced inside the Town Hall. P Rajeev, MP and chairman of the reception committee welcomed the delegates and the guests. Rajeev termed this conference as a milestone in the history of the disability movement in the country. He also narrated his experience of meeting Stephen Shore, a renowned expert in the field of special education, who is an assistant professor at the University of New York. Shore was himself diagnosed with Autism and Aspersers syndrome at the age of three and was advised institutionalisation. But his parents differed and admitted him to a regular school. His autobiography, ‘Beyond the Wall’, reveals his struggle in life and how he overcame the disability and emerged successful. Rajeev concluded by emphasising that “strong movements of the disabled are required to ensure accessibility and equity for the disabled.” Several disabled persons who had overcome various hurdles and made a mark in life were honoured in the inaugural session. Malini Chib, secretary of the Able Disabled All People Together (ADAPT), who despite her cerebral palsy has two masters degrees to her credit and has authored a book “One Little Finger” spoke about both attitudinal and physical barriers that inhibit and prevent the advance of persons with disabilities. Krishnamurthy, a limbless classical singer from Coimbatore emphasised on the need to change the mindset of society. Purnima, spoke on how education and employment can lead to empowerment of the disabled. A disabled athlete from Tripura, Samir Barman and a disabled girl student from West Bengal Nasima Khaitoon were also felicitated on the occasion. Kanti Ganguly traced the brief journey of the NPRD from its formation at a convention at Kolkata in February 2010. At that time there were only organisations in four states – West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka and Jharkhand. Now we have spread to 12 states. During the short time that it has been in existence the NPRD has been able to intervene effectively and make its impact felt in the disability sector. Ashish Doval, representative of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) spoke about the issues confronting the deaf in India including issues of non-availability of sign language interpreters, education and employment issues for the deaf. Philip Simon, general secretary, Parivar-NCPO drew attention to the concerns of those with intellectual disabilities. Kerala State Disabilities Commissioner Dr N Ahmed Pillai enlisted the various measures that the state government is taking for the welfare of disabled persons. Chief Guest, Brinda Karat observed that the struggle of the disabled in India for justice has overcome many hurdles and has broken many barriers. “But these have been mainly driven by the individual efforts and the courageous spirit of those who are disabled. At the same time, the families of the disabled and the disabled themselves have made the fundamental shift from what is called the medical model of looking at disability to the rights framework which basically means that all citizens living in India, disabled or abled have equal rights to national resources.” She advised the NPRD to directly understand and critique macro policies of the government. She criticised the reduction in budgetary allocation to the social justice ministry. She also said that the NPRD must demand that every single ministry must have a separate budget for the disabled. “Like Gender budgeting, there should be budgeting for the disabled as well” she said. The conference had as its main agenda, discussion and adoption of the programme and constitution of the NPRD. The programme introduced by assistant convener, Muralidharan in the afternoon session laid down the long term perspective of the NPRD before the disability sector. The programme notes that “There are innumerable organisations working among the disabled. Some of these organisations have been in existence since long. A vast majority of them are engaged in charity and service delivery, while some champion rights. Some of the larger organisations are disability specific.” It states that “even while championing specific issues concerning each disability, the need for building a common united cross disability movement is paramount.” It calls for the mobilisation of the vast masses of the disabled to champion their rights and also fight against the retrograde policies of the government as well as social attitudes. “Towards the realization of the above aims and objectives”, the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled “shall endeavour to unite and mobilise persons with disabilities in the country to build a strong movement cutting across the barriers of religion, caste, community, region and gender.” The draft of the constitution introduced G N Nagaraj lays down that “The NPRD may grant affiliation to any mass membership based organisation of persons with disabilities working in any state or union territory of India, provided it accepts the aims, objectives, programme and constitution of the NPRD.” The constitution also provides for associate membership being granted for “non-mass membership based organisations and institutions working among disabled persons”. Delegates from all the 12 states represented at the conference participated in the discussion on the draft programme and the constitution. Several amendments to the programme and constitution were proposed by the delegates from the affiliating units. The thrust of the discussion and amendments were to strengthen the programme and the constitution. G N Nagaraj while replying to the discussion the next day gave reasons for accepting/non-accepting some of the amendments. The conference also passed resolutions calling for amending the Indian constitution to include disability as a prohibited ground for discrimination; accessibility and employment issues in Railways; uniform criteria for pension throughout the country for people with disabilities; universally valid identity card; against sexual abuses of disabled women; and for the speedy enactment of the new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill and for revising the existing disability policy etc. The programme and constitution and the resolutions all were put to vote individually and were unanimously passed. A 36 member executive committee was elected by the conference. The executive committee at its first meeting elected Jhansi Rani as president, Kanti Ganguly as general secretary and S Namburajan as treasurer. Four vice-presidents and four secretaries were also elected. The successful conduct of the conference would not have been possible but for the tireless work put in by our volunteers from Kerala who worked day in and out over the past several weeks. The dilapidated Town Hall was not only made habitable but disabled friendly in the true sense of the term. While temporary but strong ramps were put at all places where they were necessary, display screens were put up both inside the hall as well as outside the hall to enable one to watch the proceedings. Sign language interpreters were there throughout the three days interpreting the proceedings for those who were deaf or hard of hearing. Care was taken to ensure that the hotels in which accommodation was provided were completely accessible. The stage at the public meeting was also made accessible for all. The excellent arrangements for food were also appreciated by all delegates. The warmth and love showered on the delegates by our friends from Kochi will always be cherished by the delegates who had come to attend the conference.