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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > March 29, 2008 > Role of Civil Society in the Empowerment of the Disabled

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Role of Civil Society in the Empowerment of the Disabled

Saturday 29 March 2008, by Duryodhan Nahak


Understanding disability has undergone a sea- change in the last few decades especially in the Western countries; this has been significantly shaped by what is known as the social model of disability. The ‘social model of disability’ was a response to the ‘individual/medical model’ that dominated until the 1990s. According to individual/medical model, some physiological or chemical system might be missing or atrophied, or might have been damaged through illness, accident or some other trauma. The absence or malfunctioning of such a system results in the person having impaired abilities to cope with life. A malfunctioning auditory system causes the disability of deafness. A malfunctioning of the visual system causes the disability of blindness. A stroke that disrupts systems involved in speech or movement causes corresponding disability. This model establishes a causal connection between individual impairment, seen as departure from human normality, and disability, seen as restriction in abilities to perform tasks. The social model breaks this causal connection between body impairment and disability: disability is not physical, it is social. Disablement is caused by the oppression of social and economic structure on the disabled individuals who are, consequently, an oppressed group in society. According to this approach, disability resides ‘principally in the socio-structural barriers that serve to disadvantage and exclude people with impairments’.

It is a matter of great concern that the abilities and potentials of differently abled persons have not yet been fully explored and tackled. Practically it is a great loss of human resources which, if discovered, matured, appropriately channelised and utilised, could add a new force to the progression of the society. Empowerment of the differently abled is very necessary in today’s fast competing and changing scenario of society which has forced individuals to concentrate their efforts on different dimensions of life.

The question is: who can change this scenario? The answer to this question is not so easy. There is a larger social response to empower the differently abled. By imparting proper skills and though education and other necessary support, the differently abled person can join hands with the mainstream and contribute his/her potential. Empowering the differently abled is a great challenge, partly because people with disabilities are scattered throughout communities and rarely have a chance to identify with one another, and also because many of them stay at home because of mobility problems. But this is becoming increasingly visible in recent times due to the growing efforts by several civil society organisations.

Empowerment refers to increasing the social, political or economic strength of individuals and communities. It often involves the empowered developing confidence in their own capacities. Sociological empowerment often addresses members of groups that social discrimination processes have excluded from decision-making processes through, for example, discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, caste and physical atributes.

There has been a conflicting trend that is occurring against the empowerment of the differently abled. On the one hand, there is growing influence of policies clustered around the rhetoric of economic rationality within the government, both at the Central and State levels, and on the other hand, the marketisation and bureucratisation of several institutions such as the academia. This means mainstream institutions and agencies have not much interest to take care of the disadvantege section. This makes room for alternatives, that is, to engage civil society to empower the differently abled.

In its current usage, civil society is generally understood to constitute a range of voluntary and autonomous associations in the public sphere between the family and the state which exist in relation to, but are independent of, the state.

‘Civil society’ is a broader term that is being widely used in the current discourse of social science. The neo-liberals and the statists do differ on the composition and role of civil society in the over-all development of the society. It consists of a whole range of institutions—school, church, voluntary organisation, club, association, market, family and a host of other institutions outside of the state and the government. Within this broad range of civil society organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) play a vital role.

IN the era of liberlisation, privatisation and globalisation, while the state is gradually withdrawing from its welfare role, questions can be raised regarding the real inclusion of the disabled in the mainstream of the Indian nation constituting a significant portion of the country’s population.

• Can the fruits of globalisation reach the disabled as has been visualised by the proponents of distributive justice and welfare state?

• What should be the mode of the NGOs’ commitment as one of the vital organs of civil society for the real inclusion of the disabled in the mainstream of the nation?

In answer to the above questions it can certainly be admitted that it is the highest responsibility of the NGOs to play a proactive role to include this nascent group in the mainstream of the nation by educating and generating confidence in them through which they can get employment in the private sector besides the public sector fulfilling its responsibility. Here it is important to note that in the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the Government of India has promised to create five lakhs jobs by earmarking Rs 1800 crores. For the sake of implementing this laudable objective, what is required is the necessity of reaching out education to the disabled person living at the bottom; this indeed is the need of the hour. According to the 2001 census, the percentage of disabled is 2.13 while different voluntary organisations and several studies by United Nations expert teams contest this figure and put it between 5-10 per cent of the total population of the country. It means providing basic amenities to the disabled is not only a big challenge for the government but for the NGOs as well. In many cases the birth of a disabled child is seen in an ugly way. In the event of failure on the part of the government to arrest the increasing number of disabilities, it is the crying need of the hour to ensure their education, housing, residential schooling facilities, removing superstition from the minds of the people, particularly towards the disabled girl child. Further, the Persons With Disability Equality of Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation Act, (popularly known as Persons With Disability Act) 1995, has been enacted to provide three per cent share in government jobs and various public undertakings and different government sponsored social and economic schemes. This Act makes special provisions for the NGOs to get aid from the government for their disability related activities. In order to ensure the participation of the NGOs, it has been provided in the Act that five persons representing disability related NGOs would be part and parcel of the central coordination and executive body. The concerned body would suggest and review the policy and plan. For manpower development, research and training the government would avail the fund and aides and appliances. Unfortunately, huge amounts are misused by many NGOs. Profit-motive attitude, nepotism and a desire to safeguard their self-interest are major stumbling blocks on the real development of the disabled.

India is emerging as one of the largest economies in the world. The information technology is also booming. In addition to this, it is the second largest populous country next to China. Nowadays scholars, academicians and politicians are talking of achieving inclusive growth by formulating different plan strategies. Against background, in order to make India a developed country and improve its rank in different human development indicators by 2020, it is highly essential to provide the fruits of success to the really downtrodden section of the population, most particularly the disabled, whose number varies between five to 10 per cent in the country. Further, NGOs who are regarded as the key drivers of the society can play an effective and constructive role in achieving inclusive growth by including the disabled in the mainstream of the nation. The disabled can contribute to the advancement of the country by their sincerity, commitment to develop a conducive work culture, efficiency and capacity in building the country. Out of the total number of the disabled only two per cent have been educated upto different levels of the Indian education system. As it is not possible to provide employment to everybody in the public sector, what is required is compulsory vocational education, kindling in them the desire to have advanced training in computer technology and motivating them to form self-help groups that can make them self-sufficient and innovative. In achieving these goals the role of the NGOs as one of the vital organs of civil society is of immense significance. Despite rapid urbanisation and advancement in the field of science and technology, the physically challenged children take admission in the schools at the average age of 10/11 which also testifies to a sorry state of affairs. By the time they complete Class X they reach an advanced age and they are unwilling, out of a sense of shame, to study with far younger persons; disabled girls are the worst sufferers in this process.

To sum up, only enacting laws and acts would not address the real concerns and grievances of the weaker and minority sections of the population. Hence, NGOs, who are receiving much grant in aid from State, national and international agencies, should commit themselves to develop a congenial climate by creating a barrier free environment and generating awareness among the parents and help the disabled to lead a healthy and civic life like other able bodied persons in the society.

The author, himself a visually challenged person, is pursuing his Ph.D in South Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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