Inclusive Tourism Leader Interview: Javed Abidi - by Monica Guy

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An Interview with Javed Abidi, Director of India's National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.)

Interview by Monica Guy

Dynamic, passionate and tireless in his work, Javed has rocket-launched the issue of disability rights in India from almost a standing start in the early 1990s. As director of India's National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.), among many other responsibilities, he and his small team of eight have created an vast network of contacts, supporters and associates the world over.

Javed's achievements in the past 16 years have been both ground-breaking and mind-boggling. Among many other things, he was at the forefront of a campaign which resulted in a landmark law recognising the rights of India's disabled population - approximately 70 million people. In 2007, he led a campaign which achieved - for the first time ever - significant recognition of disabled people in the government's official five-year plan.

From his office in New Delhi, he spills a few secrets:


When you first turned your focus from journalism to disability rights in India, back in 1992, the picture was depressing. Less than 2 percent of disabled children were in education, less than 1 percent of disabled adults were employed, and open discrimination was rife. How optimistic are you now?

Paradigm shifts have taken place in the last 10 to 15 years. The situation for disabled people in India has improved enormously. I'm very optimistic that the future will follow that trend. If we talk about the glass being half full or half empty, I like to see the glass as half full.

However, it's vital not to get too complacent. We shouldn't feel we have achieved everything, as when I consider India's size, its population, its dynamic quality, I see there is still a very, very, very long road ahead.

Sometimes it is important to see the glass as half empty.

How has Indian society changed in the last 16 years, in terms of how it treats people with disabilities?

A change in society's perception of disabled people is vital for disability rights, so this is an important question. Politicians, journalists, policy-makers, are not separate from society but immersed in it and influenced by it.

In the 1990s it was almost a curse and a shame to be disabled. People with disabilities were unseen and unheard. In that time, whenever I went out shopping or to the cinema people would stare at me or ask me what had happened - out of simple curiosity rather than malice as a disabled person in public was a rare sight.

Now, nobody gives me a second glance. There are far more disabled people out shopping, in the park, at the cinema. This helps raise awareness among the general public, and also gives confidence and reassurance to the disabled people themselves. The fact that there is now a law to protect the rights of disabled people also helps.

However, there is a great difference between India's large, cosmopolitan cities, where disability is generally accepted, and the rural towns and villages, where it is still rather a taboo issue.

Your headline-grabbing campaign methods do indeed seem to focus on spreading information and raising awareness in society. Are they effective?

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One of India's greatest strengths is that it is a true democracy. Non-violent resistance, in the style of Mahatma Gandhi, is part of our history and our tradition. We decided to employ the same tactics to promote our movement.

We compile detailed information, write letters, negotiate, and if that doesn't work we are prepared to engage in dharna (sit-ins) and hunger strikes when the issue is important enough.

I have been on hunger strike several times for justified reasons. Each time this has touched a chord with the people and we have achieved what we wanted to achieve. For instance, I went on hunger strike just before the 2004 general elections, as part of a campaign to make polling booths accessible. The Chief Justice of India stepped in and ordered ramps to be made mandatory. We now have electronic voting machines with Braille, suitable for blind voters.

Have you always been so passionate about your beliefs, such a fighter?

Genetics plays a part: my father was a great fighter. He engaged in non-violent resistance and suffered hunger strikes of 20-30 days at a time. He was incredibly strong - my longest strike was for three days, and that was long enough.

I was also lucky that I could make friends with my disability in a nice, slow way. I knew from day one that I had a Spina Bifida so there were no sudden surprises. When I was eight my legs started dragging. I progressed to crutches and then to a wheelchair at 15. It gave me time to adjust and I have not suffered from lack of confidence or embarrassment about my disability.

And I don't give up. I don't believe in giving up. That's something deep inside me. When I was born, the doctors gave me just 20 days to live. My parents named me Javed, which means 'Immortal', and it must have worked because I'm still around.

I like to compare myself to one of those 'jokers', those puppets that you can keep on punching and punching, and they keep coming back. I saw one of them while in rehab in the US after major surgery and it affected me deeply. Now when I look back at my life, I recall that.

Don't you ever have to let go of some battles in order to concentrate on others?

In theory, yes. We do have to make some trade-offs. Every week we receive hundreds of letters and calls asking us to look at particular issues, fight certain campaigns, research this, that or the other. We have to be selective and focus on the most important issues.

On the other hand, I don't like to let go of battles. If you choose your target carefully to begin with, if you think it through thoroughly, make sure all your core values are in place, and go into battle well-prepared, then there's no question of giving up.

What are your latest battles in the disability world?

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We had a very successful 2007. Firstly we were at the forefront of the campaign that achieved India's official ratification of the UNCRPD, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We were only the seventh country in the world to do this so we are extremely proud.

Secondly, we managed to make an impact in India's five-year government plan. For fifty years, the government has released official five-year plans for the country that make absolutely no mention of disability. After a strenuous campaign starting in early 2007, we achieved the historic victory of a significant chapter in this plan.

All ministries are now obliged to create a disability plan and allocated 3 percent of their resources to this area. At long last, disability is no longer simply dismissed as a minor part of the social justice programme, but is being treated with the seriousness it deserves. There are other commitments, involving things like physical access to buildings and transport, access to websites for the blind, the need for a sign language institute... it's all in there.

Unfortunately, 2008 was by and large a wash-out in terms of the government implementing these wonderful things it had promised. It was frustrating, but we bided our time and launched a campaign for implementation at the end of 2008.

On 3 December 2008, World Disability Day, over 10,000 disabled people braved the cold and flocked to New Delhi to protest in front of the India Gate. It shows the spirit of the movement - very much alive and strong. We were so many, and so determined, that we could not be ignored. The Prime Minister's Office responded and accepted ten major recommendations from us.

We are now working aggressively on our campaign for the government to implement its promises. I expect that we shall spend the entire year browbeating them, but we won't give up. We have to remember that these are huge paradigm shifts that will make real changes in the lives of ordinary people. We have to keep the focus straight.

What advice would you give to people in other countries who are trying, like you, to raise the issues around disability rights?

The principles are the same the world over. Networking, communication, rising above yourself to see the bigger picture - all of these things are vital. Focus on the stakeholders, those people who are involved in disability issues whether they like it or not. Take the media along with you.

It's very important to keep yourself free and uncompromised. Some NGOs are more concerned about their funding and their own inner organisation than about the issue they are supposedly fighting for. We don't take a penny from the government so our voice is free, unbiased and unshackled by obligations.

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A cross-disability movement is vital. In many countries people fight solely for themselves - the blind for the blind, the deaf for the deaf and so on. Some organisations promoting access for mobility impaired people have websites that are inaccessible to blind users. On the other hand, I've visited leading blind organisations that have no access for wheelchair users. But this will never work. You can't preach without practising what you preach; you can't tell society to be sensitive when you are being insensitive yourself.

Disabled people are a weak force the world over. Making divisions in our community makes us even more weak. We need to band together with a cross-disability movement that gives us greater strength and visibility. Then everything will fit into place.

What advice would you give disabled travellers visiting India?

Be realistic and do proper research before you come, especially if you have a severe disability. Awareness is growing in the tourism sector as elsewhere. Even if we have a long way to go in terms of disabled access, India is still a fun place to visit.

This is also a hospitable country and you can count on local people for help and advice. If you reach the Taj Mahal and there are seven steps, just ask those around you for a hand and you'll find they are more than willing. They help out of empathy, compassion and goodness rather than pity but are often curious, so don't take it the wrong way if you are stared at.

And in conclusion...

Disability rights is not just about disabled people - it's about wider society. Everyone must realise that disabled people are a strong component of world citizenship, in terms of the economy as well as in terms of equality, human rights, and the other values any civilised society holds dear. By shutting out disabled people from society, the world would be losing out.

It's equally important for those with disabilities to look within themselves and then reach out to others. It's easy to blame society when times are difficult. But what's the point of that? Throughout my entire life, as a student, as a traveller, as a wheelchair user, as a journalist, as an activist, I've learned that if you reach out and extend your hands, 5, 6, 10 people will join hands with you and you will be able to move forward.

Online Resources:

National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People
(www.ncpedp.orgDisability News & Information Service (www.dnis.org)

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