Here are excerpts from interview with Ira Singhal who topped the IAS exam in 2015 and became an icon for many differently abled people.
Here she discusses prevailing attitudes towards the ‘divyaang’, what must be done – and excelling simply to be treated as equal:
Please analyze the new Accessible India campaign.
Accessible India is a very good move – accessibility is one of the biggest issues for the disabled. It’s even more difficult if they’re from a poor family.
Not having accessible schools or transport makes education worse. Even if they go to school, when they realize their class is on the second or third floor and there’s no infrastructure or help, drop-outs begin.
So you think this government initiative will work?
See, in a country like ours, everything starts from the government – once the government becomes accessible, once the government decides this is what we need to do, everything else follows.
But unlike the West, India doesn’t seem to envision the differently abled – why?
Let’s be honest – disabled people constitute 3% of the population. India doesn’t have enough to feed 70% of poor people. So, disabled people don’t fall in a priority zone.
Yet other nations with similar numbers design empowering systems. Are ours enough?
No, they are not. To quote minister Jayant Sinha, ‘We live in a scarcity mindset country.’ In a country like ours, people are bothered about themselves – disabled people are not able to talk about their problems. They don’t have a voice. They’re unable to bring attention to themselves – hence, they get ignored.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Getting people to accept me as an equal and to treat me as part of the system, not someone who needs to be pitied.
Let me assert – disabled people don’t want to be treated as different, they want to be treated as an equal, contributing part. But unfortunately, nobody is ready to make them an equal part. People look at what you look like and decide what your abilities are.
You go for a job interview – but since you can’t walk in a perfect fashion, the interviewer assumes you are incapable.
How did you overcome this?
What I learnt is that if you keep acting normal, if you act that there’s nothing different about you, people will eventually believe and respond to you like that.
I’ve always believed I am equal to everybody, performed to the best of my abilities, given my 100% and thankfully, I haven’t done badly.
But i had to fight for it. It’s very convenient for the world to treat you as someone lesser. I had to prove multiple times that I’m an equal – in fact, i had to perform outstandingly, just to be treated equally.
Please suggest three measures for India’s differently-abled to join the mainstream now.
Access is the biggest issue – if a disabled person can’t go to office, how will they work? I know many government offices refusing to transfer disabled people to places they could reach. In one case, a disabled person was put in a third floor office. He can’t climb but the office refuses to transfer him – it’s like saying, we will not let you perform.
Disabled people need correct infrastructure. Secondly, we must give sensitivity training to people, so they don’t pity the disabled, and give training to the disabled on the fact that they have potential and just need to enhance it. That should include parents and children, so parents can bring up their kids with the right perspective from the beginning.
Besides, our education system needs to be more disabled-friendly. For instance, people with hearing defects have barely any schools or colleges – even if they’re smart, they’re unable to pursue higher education.
We need an education system for all. Why can’t our teachers use sign language?
It’s not that tough. Why can’t the BEd curriculum include compulsory training on sign language and Braille?
These are policy measures we require on an urgent basis.