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Born with congenital spina bifida, a developmental disorder, Javed Abidi has traversed the world on a wheelchair, advocating the rights of the disabled.

Considered a pioneer of the cross-disability movement in India, he was instrumental in the drafting and passage of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, and in the setting up of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in 1996. He has been its director since 1997. In October 2011, he was appointed world chair of Disabled People’s International (DPI), a global organization working for the rights of people living with disabilities.

In July, Abidi also took over as the vice-chair of the International Disability Alliance, a global alliance working for disability causes. In his new role, he stresses that disability movements must focus on the global south (which includes India), for this is where nearly 800 million of the world’s one billion people with disabilities live. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

As the world chair of Disabled People’s International, what are your priorities?

The dynamics of the disability rights movement are going through tremendous churning at this point. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) said one billion, or 15% of the world’s population, live with a disability. Of this, as many as 80%, or 800 million, live in countries of the global south. People with disabilities also comprise 20% of the world’s poorest. Yet the leadership and the mechanisms that shape policies that affect the lives of this 80% are controlled by people from the developed world, who have absolutely no idea what it means to be a person with disability—to not even have a wheelchair, to not even have a hearing aid, to live in abject poverty, etc. My biggest priority as of now is to remind the world, again and again, of this fact.

What is the DPI’s agenda for the UN general assembly’s high-level meeting on disability and development in September in New York?

In the past decade or so, it has by and large been established that disability is a cross-cutting human rights issue. But what the DPI and other global bodies are now trying to underline is that disability is also a developmental issue. Our first endeavour is to ensure that the respective governments send the highest level of delegations to this meeting. The DPI has also raised the demand for a global forum on disability and development—a platform for all stakeholders on the sidelines of the high-level meeting, along with a strong outcome document.

Most importantly, the DPI will try for a sizeable representation from the global south—from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean—to ensure that their disability and development agenda is not hijacked by people who have very different realities from ours.

How can workplaces in India be made disabled-friendly? What are the challenges, and how can they be met?

Companies that are serious and committed to being disabled-friendly will have to look at it as a policy issue at the highest level. Inclusivity is not just employing people with disabilities. It encompasses making all your facilities and systems accessible. Most companies approach this wrong and equate disability with corporate social responsibility. They first employ people with disabilities and then make their workplaces disabled-friendly. Very soon, India will have a strong anti-discrimination law on disability. Everyone will have no choice but to fall in line. It is up to the employers to decide if they want to be a role model or be forced to comply.

Post-2015, when the world prepares for a new development framework after the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), where do you see the disability movement going?

I think that in the past couple of years, development practitioners have become more aware of disability. The challenge is to translate this awareness into action and tangibles. Apprehensions are that disability will again be overlooked. Policymakers and decision makers do not seem to grasp the obvious connection between disability and human rights and development issues. For instance, if you talk about conflict and wars, disability has a direct and significant correlation to it. The same holds true for disability and natural disasters; disability and situations of humanitarian risks; disability and the effects of climate change, and so on.

The task at hand, especially for grass-roots organizations such as the DPI, is to ensure that we keep reminding the people who matter about us.

In what ways can India shape the global disability agenda?

If we go by the 15% theory of WHO, India would be home to more than 150 million people with disabilities, and some of these are the poorest and most vulnerable people on this planet. India’s policy on disability, hence, will have a significant impact on not only the region but also the world. With the new economic dynamics and the power balance shifting towards developing economies such as India and the other Brics nations—Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, it is imperative that their development policies are inclusive and accessible to disabled people. India should lead here by looking at reforms to advance disability rights, raising the issue at the UN and other bilateral and multilateral platforms. The nations of the global south, especially the Brics countries, are somewhat disillusioned by the MDGs and will therefore be critical to the post-2015 process.

What are the key hurdles in India’s disability movement and how can they be met?

The biggest challenge is to get the attention of policymakers and decision makers to put disability on the agenda and to convert the attention into political will. India made a grave mistake during the formative years, because of which our schools, colleges, universities and public infrastructure continue to be inaccessible to people with disabilities. Rather than rectifying those errors, we are continuing to build more barriers. In a budget analysis done by us, we found that in the Union budgets since 2008, India spends only 0.009% of its GDP on disability! A strong anti-discrimination law with punitive measures is also needed to ensure equal participation of people with disabilities.

What difference are you going to make for the movement in South Asia, especially since you are an Indian?

The MDG Report of 2012 says that by 2015, four out every five people living on less than $1.25 (around 70) a day will be in South Asia. It is anybody’s guess as to how many of them will be people with disabilities, given the vicious cycle of poverty and disability. My immediate aim is to build a strong cross-disability network in South Asia to highlight these issues. We have already started this process and some progress has been made.

As a major development aid donor, India also needs to rethink its “no-strings attached" south-south cooperation policy. A democracy cannot possibly fund projects that violate the human rights of people with disabilities by creating barriers for them.

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