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Debra Ruh

  Employability & Technology


Interview with Javed Abidi, founder of the Disability Rights Group

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Javed Abidi, Honorary Director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) and the founder of the Disability Rights Group, is an active campaigner for access for persons with disabilities. After winning a case in the Supreme Court, in 1998, for effective implementation of the Persons with Disabilities Act, he is now engaged in mobilising public opinion on the proposed disability law. Mr. Abidi, who was in Chennai recently for a South Zone Consultation Workshop on census and the enumeration of people with disability, shared his views with A. Srivathsan and Garimella Subramaniamon the improvements made to the 2011 census questionnaire and their implications for policy changes and resource allocations.

Photograph of Javed Abidi
Javed Abidi: 'The Census data is the foundation on which the rights of the people with disability will be determined.' Photo: V. Ganesan

It was only in 2001 that Independent India began a comprehensive Census enumeration of people with disability. Now, as the 2011 census is set to commence in February, how do you view this in the context of the struggle for establishing the rights of the disabled?

It was not easy to include the enumeration of the disabled in the 2001 Census. We struggled for more than six months and managed to include it only at the last moment. Till the 2001 census figures were revealed, the Government of India maintained that the number of people with disability was less than one per cent of the total population contrary to the estimate by U.N. institutions which placed it at about 10 per cent and the activists estimating it to be five to six per cent. The 2001 census showed that 2.1 per cent of the population had different kinds of disabilities. In my opinion this figure is grossly underestimated.

Why do you think the 2001 figures are not accurate?

There are two reasons for contesting the 2001 Census figures. First we have to bear in mind that the average percentage of population with disabilities in China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other countries in Asia-Pacific region is around five per cent. It would defy logic to think that India is the sole exception with lower figures. Second, only five kinds of disabilities were included for enumeration. Since the question on disability was introduced at the last moment there was no time to train the enumerators adequately. As a result, many enumerators missed out or incorrectly filled the column on disability.

How critical is it to get the figures correct?

The Census data is the foundation on which the rights of the people with disability will be determined. Statistics has a huge impact on policy making and resource allocation. It directly affects decisions on a host of issues ranging from reservations in schools to availability of good quality aids and appliances for the disabled.

How will census 2011 be better?

Two important improvements have been made to the 2011 census questionnaire. One, the question on disability has been moved up the list from the previous fifteenth position to the ninth, one place ahead of the question on mother tongue. This change, we hope, will ensure that the question will not be missed out either by the enumerator or the respondent. Two, the categories of disabilities have been expanded from five to eight. For the first time people with mental illness and multiple disabilities have been brought in. Those with disabilities, besides the seven listed, can be accounted for under the eighth category titled "other disabilities." These changes will make the enumeration more inclusive. For the last one year we have interacted with Dr. C. Chandramouli, Registrar General and Census Commissioner, and he has been exceptionally receptive to our concerns.

What efforts have NCPEDP and the cross disability alliance taken to ensure that the forthcoming enumeration would be accurate?

The NCPEDP was invited by the Census Commission to train its enumerators. We have developed a 45-minute module to explain disability, conditions of disability and the sensitivities involved in asking questions about disability.

The 90 national trainers identified by the Census Commission were trained by NCPEDP who in turn trained the other enumerators. We have also organised a series of workshops for volunteers interacting at the grassroots level. The purpose is to train them to create awareness about the importance of census and convince people with disability and their families to ensure the question is asked and accurately answered.