Case studies

Empowering the Disabled

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With support from PACS and partner Chaupal, persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the state of Chhatisgarh in central India are asserting their rights collectively via a disability forum. They are  challenging discrimination within their communities and the wider system, and claiming entitlements in order to develop viable livelihoods.

Chandravati of Bulga village, Chattisgarh, shows the disability certificate she has been able to acquire.

Limited mobility

Chandravati, aged 30, has post-polio residual paralysis (PPRP) and deformities in both hands, but tries not to let her disabilities get in the way of her ambitions. She wants to be useful to her family and to society. ‘Even if I am disabled, I want to lead a normal life and earn a lot of money,’ she says.

Living in Bulga village, Lundra block, in the Surguja district of Chhattisgarh, she studied until class 5, but had to drop out because the school was too far from home for her to commute with any degree of ease. ‘I often had to drag myself to school because of limited mobility,’ says Chandravati. ‘During the monsoon, my clothes would get very dirty and I didn’t like that.’

Living with her parents, two brothers and three sisters, she contributes to household chores as best she can. ‘Ever since my tricycle was spoilt, I had been constrained at home,’ explains Chandravati. ‘All outings, like going to the panchayat (village council) for my disability pension or buying vegetables and groceries for the house had stopped.’

It was at a meeting in Dargaon village that Chandravati met Sumanth Prajapati, Block Coordinator for Chaupal, the local PACS partner. She found the meeting – and subsequent meetings – useful enough to join the Chhattisgarh Viklang Morcha (a disability forum) in 2013. ‘These meetings were very useful because we got a lot of information on government schemes and programmes, MGNREGA work in the village and so on,’ she says. 

She explains that she has been discriminated against when trying to get MGNREGA work, because of her disability, but has not let it undermine her resolve. ‘It doesn’t bother me,’ she says. ‘PWDs have always been isolated from the rest of society. Families have always felt the stigma of having a disabled child and go to great lengths to cut off themselves – and the child - from the prying eyes of their neighbours and friends.’

Challenging assumptions

Kumari Monica Sadom, a field worker for Chaupal says: ‘Chandravati realised the advantage of working as part of a larger group. The emphasis on sangathan (group) is obvious – more information, better solidarity, greater awareness about schemes, the ability to negotiate. This is leading to changing mindsets about the disabled: people used to call people with disabilities “deaf” or “dumb”, but now there’s far more awareness and respect for them – and people now call them by name.’ 

Chandravati has learnt to speak up. ‘The sarpanch (panchayat head) said to me “you speak too much in meetings. Are you too clever? Just keep quiet!” But if I see or hear something that I do not agree with, I will not sit back and ignore it. I will speak my mind,’ she insists. 

She would like more training and education, to increase her awareness of social schemes and opportunities for people with disabilities such as herself. ‘We should be encouraged to apply for easy loans so we can open our own grocery or vegetable shops, or tailoring and sewing centres, to earn a respectable livelihood and be useful to our families,’ she says. ‘But it doesn’t happen. If I wasn’t disabled I would have gone out like a normal person and earned lots of money and lived a normal life!’

Dignity for all

In Uparpondi village, Rishi Kumar Singh, Ashok Singh, Tilakdhari Singh, Kuwarsai, Ram Kumar Paitra and Dinesh Prajapati are gathered together in a small group. They are all disabled and share a common agenda – dignity for all, regardless of gender, caste, religion and ability.

Rishi Kumar Singh, Ashok Singh, Tilakdhari Singh, Kuwarsai, Ram Kumar Paitra and Dinesh Prajapati of Uparpondi village are all disabled and share a common agenda – dignity for all, regardless of gender, caste, religion and ability.

Chaupal District Coordinator, Nirmal, says: ‘Problems for the disabled start from childhood. Our education system is not designed for PWDs, neither are most other services. For the disabled, a parallel system of education by way of “special schools” is being put in place, but we forget that segregation also continues to be one of the most widespread forms of exclusion.’

Ashok Singh, who also suffers from PPRP, says: ‘In 2007 we started our work from the village of Bulga and decided to form a forum of disabled persons. We cannot fight alone – we need numbers. Initially, 12 people offered to join us! That was a huge number given our small expectations. We went ahead by orientating them in our objectives and identifying common issues like tricycles, disability certificates, pensions, ration cards, BPL (below-the-poverty-line) cards, work in MGNREGA and loans. For example, if PWDs want tricycles, we ensure they get their disability certificates made first so they are eligible to demand them.’ 

Fighting discrimination is an ongoing challenge, admits Ashok, but things are gradually improving and PWDs are being accepted. However, he reports that PWPS are often rebuked for requesting work under MGNREGA – regularly by the sarpanch himself – and bluntly told: ‘You are disabled so go home.’ 

Chaupal Field Worker Kumari Sukmanya Tirki, says: ‘I have seen PWDs demonstrate to MGNREGA project officers that they can work at the site; many times, work was stopped while they showed these functionaries what kind of manual work they could do.’

Future innovations

Looking ahead, members of Chhatisgarh Viklang Manch have applied to the district head  for construction of disability-friendly toilets in their homes. They are also advocating for disability pensions to be paid to those who are at least ‘40% disabled’ and lobbying for the construction of ramps in government schools and public buildings, arguing that money for building ramps is often misused.

Ram Kumar Paitra feels that the awareness around disability issuea, and advocacy on behalf of PWDs is  gaining traction. ‘In November 2011, the education department released an advertisement for vacancies for which various categories of people could apply – like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Castes and retired defence personnel – but not PWDs. So we went to the chief minister and gave him a memorandum. The department had to amend the advertisement.’ 

In 2014, members of the group even organised a one-day training course for the rozgar sachivs (principal secretaries) of MGNREGA, at the request of the Ambikapur Janpad head’s office. The forum is actively engaged in advocacy with the government to consider the needs of disabled people during planning processes. 

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