Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rewarding awards

Advice - Disability, Nov '15
Ahead of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Shampa Sengupta wonders how government awards related to disability rights can be made more rewarding

December 3 is celebrated as International Day of Persons with Disabilities and this year the theme chosen for the day is ‘Inclusion Matters: Access and Empowerment for People of All Abilities’. According to the United Nations website, “The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is marked around the world annually on 3 December, as per General Assembly resolution 47/3 of 14 October 1992, to promote awareness and mobilize support for critical issues pertaining to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society and development.”

Photo credit: Shuvojit Moulik

Not surprisingly, we see in India as well a plethora of events and campaigns around December 3 organized by both government bodies and NGOs. While many special schools organise cultural events or picnics for their students, disabled people’s organisations take pride in organising rallies and mass movements on this day. For some, it’s an annual ritual and for some a day to renew their pledge to fight for disability rights. Interestingly, governments both at the Centre and in West Bengal organize similar events on December 3 every year and institute awards given to specific categories of people who work towards empowerment of persons with disabilities.

In West Bengal, the award categories recognised are ‘best employee / self employee with disability’, ‘best employer’, ‘best individual working for the cause of persons with disabilities’, ‘best organisation working for persons with disabilities’, ‘outstanding work in creation of a barrier-free environment’, ‘best district providing rehabilitation services to persons with disabilities, ‘outstanding creative adult and child with disabilities’ (separate categories), ‘best Braille press’ and ‘best accessible website’ – the list is quite exhaustive.

The award categories at the national level are more or less similar, but the central government makes it a point to include specific disabilities and genders in the first category (‘best employee / self employee with disability’), which means, for example, for those who are hearing impaired, there will be an award for one male and one female candidate. So there are some attempts to ensure gender parity, which is definitely laudable – the data analysis of awardees in the last four years in West Bengal shows that only 20% of the winners in the category of ‘best employee / self employee with disability’ were women (reference A Situational Analysis of Women with Disabilities in and around Kolkata, a report prepared jointly by Women’s Studies Research Centre, University of Calcutta and Sruti Disability Rights Centre).

It should also be noted that the entire award giving process depends on who is applying and who isn’t. Thus there is always a chance that truly deserving candidates will miss out on the awards. Though the procedure of applying for the awards is advertised through several newspapers as well as websites of the concerned government departments, in a vast country like India, there are chances that this information does not reach deserving persons with disabilities or service providers working on disability issues. Access to information remains a challenge for persons with disabilities in our country and amusingly this year, we have seen the central government re-advertise specific categories of awards with extension of application deadlines not once but twice.

Some worthy candidates may also feel shy and reticent in nominating themselves for an award and I have been told by several very deserving candidates that to apply for a central government award, a language barrier arises as applications can be sent only in English or Hindi.

Apart from reaching out to the disabled population, there are other specific problems in the application process and award giving ceremony. One of the reasons the central government has re-advertised the awards is because they have not received applications under some of the award categories. One such category is ‘best employee / self employee with mental illness’. It is not surprising to see that no awards were given out under this category in the last two years (as per the website of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities). When one possible candidate was requested to apply, he categorically said that such an award would not take away the stigma attached to mental illness. Since he was employed now, he was not interested in disclosing his disability to the world, as this might make him more vulnerable.

It is indeed food for thought how someone with blindness or locomotor disability may find it ‘empowering’ to receive an award from the government for their achievements, but a similar accolade may bring stigma to a person with a different disability! And here we come back to the United Nation’s theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities – ‘access and empowerment for people of all abilities’. The question is can access and empowerment have the same meaning for people with all kinds of disabilities or do these words have different meanings in relation to different disabilities.

December 3 is not far off. Let us ponder on how we can end the social stigma and shame around being disabled, how we can make our government more accountable in ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities, and how in these days of ‘awards wapsi’ in India, certain people are actually inhibited to even apply for an award. It is nothing but a form of ‘intolerance’ that persons with disabilities are fighting against. Let this December 3 be the day when you pledge to join this fight.

Shampa Sengupta is a Kolkata-based activist working on gender and disability issues for more than 25 years. She is the founder of an advocacy group called Sruti Disability Rights Centre and is Executive Committee Member, National Platform for Rights of the Disabled. She will be happy to answer your queries on disability and related issues. Write in your queries to vartablog@gmail.com, and they will be answered with due respect to confidentiality.

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