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India has come a long way in enabling opportunities for the visually impaired

RN Mohanty

It was in 1981, International Year of the Disabled People ‘IYDP’ that India celebrated and acknowledged globally developing a roadmap for the disabled. A major victory in India, in particular has been an attitudinal shift towards the disabled, especially the blind. Gone are the days when, opportunities and jobs were deemed off-limits by people on account of being blind. The victory of the Indian Blind Cricket Team at the T20 World Cup is a clear testimony of India being at the forefront of championing the cause of the blind. Sports, bureaucracy, law, journalism, politics, the arts are all arenas where you’ll find the blind excelling.

Of India’s large disabled population, 12 million of its people are blind. Not many people know that 80 percent of blindness can be prevented. A key challenge has always been of policy makers homogenizing the disabled people. Clubbing together the blind with a wheelchair using or a speech impaired individual will do none of the disabled any good as their challenges and needs differ. It has been detrimental to everybody’s interest.

Legislatively, India has progressed by leaps and bounds. It was in 1995 that we had our main disability law. India was one of the first countries to sign and later ratify the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Disabled People ‘UNCRPD’ in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Just as the year was ending last year, we passed our landmark Disability Rights Act, 2016. The government has undertaken quite a few steps to ensure accessibility to resources, opportunities and knowledge is tailor-made for the blind. Here, we can touch upon a few of them:

Information is Power

A primary trial the blind face is accessibility to means of knowledge. It is largely lacking for the blind as they have to utilize their residual sensory organs for imbibing anything new. Although the government has taken cognizance of this to a great extent, there is a lot that still needs to be done at the implementation level.

In 2012, the Parliament passed the landmark amendment to Indian Copyright Act 1957 thereby enabling the print-disabled community to create accessible literature without any need for seeking permission from the rights holders. It is a landmark step but an expensive proposition for the publishers. The publishing community has to be cajoled or made legally bound to reproduce literature that is amiable for the blind.

Another progressive step is the support of Government to Daisy Forum of India ‘DFI’ a group of over 100 organizations of producers and distributors of accessible literature. Under its ‘Accessible India Campaign’, the government has initiated an online library of accessible material called ‘Sugamya Pustakalaya’.

Financial Freedom

In the area of financial access, blind and visually impaired are still facing challenges. Despite certain landmark guidelines of RBI and IBA enabling access to financial services, there is tremendous scope for improvement. Many of the banking websites and mobile apps are still not unusable for the blind. Cashless wallets are also not used everywhere. Although NGO’s are trying their best to work with the stakeholders, their success is slow and sketchy at best. Support from government will go a long way in this area for, if blind and visually impaired are self-sufficient economically, their need for access to financial services will be as much as other communities.

Mobility & Accessibility

Accessibility is one of the most important principles of UNCRPD and also of our new law. Nevertheless, accessibility to roads, transportations, and other important means of daily necessities is still a distant dream. The Government needs to improve transport policy to specifically mandate private players to look at this with some incentives.

Government of India has come out with an excellent National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility after a long consultation with the stakeholders in 2013 but unfortunately, access to ICT in India is an unfulfilled dream. Websites are still largely unusable and important technological gadgets such as set-top boxes, washing machines etc are difficult to handle for the blind. This can certainly be improved if accessibility can be laid down as an important element of passage the standardization test with organizations such as Indian Standards Institute.

Unfortunately, more than the limitation that the blind face in terms of lack of sight, their difficulties get aggravated as there is inadequate understanding about their accessibility needs, in comparison to those of the orthopedically disabled. Mere Braille labels and signage do not lead to accessibility but proper orientation of people and accommodative attitude is what is required.

With inputs from Ketan Kothari, Sightsavers

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