Disabled people must be policymakers – Javed Ahmed Tak, Padma Shri 2020 winner
Our guest columnist this week is Javed Ahmed Tak. This disabled social worker and disability rights activist from Jammu and Kashmir has been honoured with the Padma Shri for 2020. In his column, Javed talks about his journey coming to terms with being disabled after he shot by terrorists in the spine and his vision for India’s disabled community.
I am extremely happy to win the prestigious Padma Shri for 2020. This honour acknowledges the struggles faced by all disabled people in India. Living with a disability is not easy as we face twice the struggles faced by others. The appreciation has taken a long time to come but this shows that our work is being recognised.
Award dedicated to Javed Abidi
I dedicate my Padma Shri to the late disability rights leader Javed Abidi. I remember him so strongly today. Mr Abidi showed me the way and taught me how to live my life, charted my activism, etc. He told me to stick to my path and never lose sight of my goals and that is what I have tried to do throughout.
I met Javed Abidi when I was 22 years old. This was just a year after I had been disabled and he was in Srinagar for a disability awareness programme. I saw his approach of taking people of different disability types together and that is the thinking I have tried to follow as well in my work. Like him, I decided to focus on four main areas – accessibility, independent living, employment and education.
Life after disability
I was shot in the spine by terrorists in 1999. I was convinced my life was over. I did not even think I would survive. When I realised I was disabled for life, I felt my life was limited would be limited to the wheelchair. I managed to find the strength and will to fight back and found that the more I pushed myself the more I could contribute.
Fighting for a change in a state like Jammu and Kashmir has many challenges. The biggest is the communication barriers. The frequent Internet curbs put a lot of problems in the way of the disabled community, especially the deaf and hard of hearing. Thanks to technology, their lives have been transformed and they are able to communicate with each other. This gets affected due to these barriers. We feel it the most during emergency situations when we are not able to communicate with each other.
Challenges of working in Jammu & Kashmir
Inaccessibility of transport is another major issue. Issues of the disabled community have not been taken up on a priority basis by the governments here and I have used legal means to address these. Take education for instance. There are no guidelines in Jammu and Kashmir, no helpers for disabled kids, learning materials in Braille or adequate specialised teachers.
These issues are looked at with a charity mindset, not a rights-based approach. My attempt has been to urge everyone to look at ways to empower the disabled community and not regard us as needy. Initially this was hard to bring about as people did not listen and our struggles were ignored. Thankfully we have been able to break the ice and more people are coming forward today to ask us how they can help. There is greater awareness and trust and stigma has reduced considerably.
There have been many promising developments in the disability space in recent years. The launch of the Accessible India Campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put the focus on accessible infrastructure like never before. All new buildings have to be accessible. We have full-time disability commissioners now. There are job reservations for disabled and the community is getting access to assistive technologies. A sign language institute has started in Delhi and these are all good signs.
I am looking forward to some welcome policy changes based on my PIL at the high court here regarding education. I feel people with disabilities must be included in policymaking. There should be seats reserved for disabled people in Parliament and we should have a stake in the Planning Commission. If disabled people become decision-makers we can bring in sound policy decisions.