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INTERVIEW: Javed Abidi
Man with Himaliyan courage

Javed AbidiJaved Abidi is a man with unmatched grit. The wheel-chair bound director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People can simply be credited with changing the people’s perception of disability. He is among most vocal activists of the disabled in the country and literally forced the government to include a separate category for the disabled in the Census 2001. It is one of the greatest victory for disabled activists in the country where from the first census in the independent India the disabled were never counted separately. During William Hawkins’ recent visit to the country this man was again in the news for fighting the authorities to provide facilities for disabled people at the historical monuments. Till now it was a Herculean task for disabled people to visit the historical sites in the country. Syed Ubaidur Rahman of the MG met him recently. Excerpts:

Your efforts are now being appreciated by everyone in the society. Could you tell us your experiences in the country after your return from the US?
Life for disabled in the country is not easy. A number of strings are attached to disability. Neither one has any perception of the problems faced by the disabled people nor is prepared to solve them.
My experience of initial days when I came back from the US are very sour. I cannot forget those initial six months after my arrival in the country despite stiff opposition from my parents and friends. They had advised me to stay in the US and not return here as they felt that there is very little scope here for any disabled person. But i returned. I thought that they will certainly be wrong.
I was a mass communications graduate and a brilliant student. I thought that newspapers will readily employ me. But i was shattered when all the newspapers refused to employ me. they all appreciated my courage to take up journalism. They appreciated me, but refused to give me a chance. They were all unanimous in one stand. You cannot be a good journalist. I asked them to give me a story and a deadline, but then too they refused. They did not simply want me.
Then I started freelancing. I went to a small magazine, City Scan. It was election time and they were covering all the seven parliamentary constituencies. They had interviewed four MPs from the city but were unable to get the other three as these were senior ministers in the central government. I was there when they were discussing these things. I told them that I will do it. And I had got an appointment with Jagdish Tytler the next morning. I interviewed the three and I was an instant star. Soon I started getting published in all the leading newspapers and magazines in Delhi and Mumbai. Times of India and the Illustrated Weekly are a few examples.

How did you get in here?
I had not imagined anything except journalism to take up as profession. It was my childhood dream to be a journalist and now I was beginning to taste success. It was not even in my distant dream to be here.
It was in December 1991 when my father Prof. Ishtiyaq Abidi who had joined Congress after leaving the AMU was asked by Sonia Gandhi to meet her. She asked him to bring his family too. It was my father’s first meeting with Rajeev’s widow after his assassination. We went with him. She asked every person of our family as to what he or she was doing. She asked me too. It was the time when she was planning to establish Rajeev Gandhi Foundation. She asked me whether I would be interested in working for the disabled and asked me to meet her again. When I met her next time she asked me to meet Wajahat Habibullah. He asked me to look after the disability section of the Foundation and establish it.
   It was a big offer. But for it I was supposed to lose my favourite profession for I had strived so long, and where after great struggle I was now establishing myself. I was being asked to sacrifice my passion. But I was clear that it is a very big opportunity that has come my way. Finally I reached the conclusion that if a person leaves journalism it would not affect Indian journalism. But if one person is added to work for disability it will be a great help to the disability sector. So I decided to join it.

How do you find people’s attitude towards disabled people?
Peoples attitude towards disabled people is distressing. Despite the large number of disabled people in the country, they are not aware of their problems. They have no perception of the disability and so they are mere spectators. Sometimes people take them as people with no significance and try to ignore them. Others sympathize with them. They are not prepared to recognize them as respected people.
   But over the last few years this perception is changing, though slowly. The common people now seem to be coming to a stand that these people too deserve respect. Stephen Hawking’s arrival in the country seems to have given a message to the people and authorities that these people too can deliver what others cannot do.

What has been government’s attitude towards disabled people?
Government’s attitude towards disabled people has never been good. The government does not take these people as respectful citizens. Government did not count the disabled people in different censuses held since Independence. It will be very amazing for people to note that in censuses held during the British government there was a separate category for disabled people. But after Independence our very own government refused to count the disabled people separately. In 1981 there was a question related to disabled people. But it did more harm to the cause of disabled people than any good. There were three categories of disabled people: 1) totally dumb, 2)totally crippled and 3) totally blind. It left all other categories of the disabled people.
   Who is ready to call anyone totally crippled? Will you call William Hawking totally crippled. This man who cannot move is among the most successful scientists of the world. This totally left mentally disabled people, hearing disability and partial disabled people. The result was that the census showed that we have only 0.2 percent disabled. It was not believed and was laughed at by even the government officials and other government agencies. Later a special survey for disabled people was held and the task was given to the National Sample Survey. this survey showed that the ratio of the disabled in the country was 1.9 percent.

What will be the ratio of the disabled people in the country?
I don’t want to speculate anything. The Census is on and we will have to wait for the final numbers. But let me inform you that there are more than 8 percent disabled people in the US and around 14 percent of the total population of Australia comprises disabled people. Even in the neighboring countries it is considerably higher than the number of disabled people in our country.

How disability as a separate category was included in the Census 2001?
Initially when it was decided to hold Census disability was not included in it. So we decided to agitate and came on the streets. The Census Commission was still not interested. But they were forced and in May 2000 it was decided to include it as a separate category. And I am satisfied.

Do you see coordination between different categories of the disabled people?
There was hardly any coordination among disabled activists when I came here. Only blind people were fully organized. Let me say it were only these people who were doing any worthwhile thing. Other people in other disability groups were hardly organized. And there was no coordination among these groups. Now we are struggling for the people to come close and work from a single platform. Though there are some different problems for every disability category and they will have to fight for it separately, but there are certain problems common to all these people. For these common problems we will have to struggle together. And now we are successful to have come to a single platform on a number of issues.
   There is a lack of effective leadership among the disabled people. Most of the organizations are being run by those people who are not disabled. So these people have no perception of the problems faced by the people for whom they claim to work. Most of the NGOs for disabled people are run by non-disabled people.
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