The Disabled Population in India: Evaluating the Government’s Recognition of the Issue

By Natalie Tecimer

Hearing impaired children in Mysore, India at the Mercy Convent School for the Deaf. Source: Natalie Tecimer, used with permission.

As the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 approaches, the issues on the agenda become more relevant for the global community. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the follow-up for the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, includes people with disabilities as a fundamental component of its human rights goals. In order for India to make progress toward reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, the Indian government will need to place greater emphasis on the issue of people with disabilities.

In the last Indian census of 2011, 2.21 percent of the Indian population, or 27 million people, were found to have disabilities. This number is likely incomplete. The census asked people for their disability status, and in India this generally refers to people who are registered as having a disability. In order to be a “person with disability” under Indian law, one must be suffering from at least forty percent of any disability, as certified by a medical authority. A medical authority is a state certified hospital or institution that can issue a disability certificate. Yet, the Office of The Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities notes that approximately three-quarters of the people with disabilities are in the rural areas. Due to the lack of access to medical facilities in rural areas, this would suggest that the number of people with disabilities is much higher than the 2011 census count.

The International Disability Rights Monitor ranked India as “least inclusive” in its Asia 2005 Report Card. The Indian government has made attempts to alleviate the situation for the disabled population with the measures set forth in The Person’s With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995.

The Person’s With Disabilities Act (PWDA) defines disability as blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, mental retardation, or mental issues.

Chapter V of the PWDA discusses education and mandates that appropriate governments and local authorities should provide children with disabilities free education until the age of eighteen and equip special schools for the disabled with vocational training facilities. This chapter even has a scheme for non-formal education, ie. children in rural areas. The specialized education, vocational training, and non-formal education for rural areas should predict school completion and employment following schooling, but it does not.

The National Sample Survey Organization of India found 74 percent of disabled people to be unemployed in 2003. Projecting that assessment forward would mean approximately nineteen million disabled people were unemployed based on the 2011 census.

The PWDA mandates that government agencies in India should have at least three percent of their employment reserved for disabled people. However, one immediate flaw in this mandate is that the three percent should be evenly split between people with blindness or low vision, people with hearing impairment, and people with locomotor disability or cerebral palsy. The divide of the three percent does not match the disability proportions of the population.

Approximately 47.6 percent has vision impairment, 28.6 percent has locomotor disability, 9.5 percent has speech impairment, 9.5 percent has mental disability, and 4.8 percent has hearing impairment. In the mandate for three percent of government jobs to be reserved for disabled people, there is no space for mental disability or speech impairment.

The PWDA suggests that five percent of the total workforce should be composed of people with disabilities. The act states that “within the limits of their economic capacity and development,” the government and local authorities should provide incentives to public and private sector employers. Although the connection is not explicitly made, perhaps one of these incentives is the preferential allotment of land in favor of people with disabilities. Chapter VII of the PWDA states that the government and local authorities should “frame schemes” for the allotment of land at concessional rates for setting up businesses and establishment of factories by entrepreneurs with disabilities, among other land uses relating to disabilities. The language of this chapter gives potential opportunities for disabled entrepreneurs to gain employment in the informal sector.

Despite the mandated, but not enforced, actions for increasing disabled employment in the workforce, the PWDA surprisingly does not have a substantial non-discrimination discussion. The only non-discrimination clause is that an employer cannot “dispense with, or reduce in rank” an employee who acquires a disability during his service. Furthermore, a promotion may not be denied to a person merely on the ground of his disability. However, there is no language in the PWDA about non-discrimination when hiring.

Perhaps the most significant step for India to become a more inclusive country toward people with disabilities is illustrated in The Companies Act, 2013. The Companies Act contains a “soft Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) mandate”, urging companies to route two percent of their pre-tax profits toward CSR. The CSR activities are wide ranging and encompass employment and vocational skill training that is central to people with disabilities.

India’s disabled population is largely untapped for its employment potential. The Indian government has taken limited measures toward recognizing the importance of integrating disabled people into the workforce, which is the most obvious way to lessen the poverty rate of people with disabilities. The Person’s With Disabilities Act suggests that there is much more the government can do to lessen the barriers of entry and ensure opportunities for disabled people in the workforce. The CSR mandate demonstrates an increasingly positive position that social responsibility is important and that there is government support. When the Indian government does take a firm stance on treatment and policies for people with disabilities, it will be one large step closer to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals for transforming our world.

Ms. Natalie Tecimer is a Program Coordinator and Research Assistant with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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