Javed Abidi is working to make legislative rights and economic opportunities a reality for the disabled in India. He is organizing disability groups across thematic, geographic, and language barriers to set up an informed national lobby. Simultaneously, he is establishing partnerships with business and the government to create equitable employment of the disabled.
The New Idea
Javed Abidi, affected at birth with a spinal malady and confined to the wheelchair by medical negligence, is working to provide political visibility and economic opportunities for disabled persons. In 1994 he founded the Disability Rights Group (later renamed the National Advocacy Network) to work specifically on cross-disability issues, particularly the drafting and passage of the Disability Act of 1995. He rejuvenated the Indian chapter of Disabled People's International, a worldwide organization of people with disabilities, and mobilized the emergence of several grassroots groups across the country.
In the process, Javed has introduced cross-disability culture to the movement. This has been vital for getting groups dealing with physical and mental disabilities to learn of, and listen to, each other. He sees the lack of information-sharing and communication between disability groups as having kept them apart and virtually disinterested in larger issues of the field. Thus he is spearheading nationwide surveys and researches – the first in the history of the movement – to assess the roles, potential, strengths, and weaknesses of the citizen, business, and government sectors vis-á-vis the disabled. The results have exposed grave areas of weaknesses and spurred the movement to address them.
Javed has been systematically training these various disability groups in campaigning and negotiating skills, and helping them to campaign in the political arena for disabled rights. Through lobbying and recourse to litigation (in an historic public interest case that will affect considerations of the disabled in Indian airports), Javed is now concentrating on the successful implementation of the recently passed Disability Act. Simultaneously, as head of the National Council for the Promotion of Employment of People with Disability (NCPEDP), he is working with the corporate sector to define clear employment policies for the disabled within their agenda.
In India, 60 million people, almost six percent of the population, are affected by physical or mental disabilities. They, and the activists and organizations working for them, are a fragmented group. They have traditionally concentrated on service-delivery, which supplies direct services to the client group but does not bring change in the entire system. (The provision of training and communication aids to the hearing impaired, for example, is usually not followed up by efforts to get local government health clinics to incorporate these services as part of mainstream health care.)
The concerns of the disabled have been caused primarily by the absence of real legislative and economic visibility. Until 1995, no law protected their rights. Legislation that does exist has remained inactive or been grossly compromised. The Disability Act was negotiated in 1996, but a Chief Commissioner was not appointed until September 1998. A Central Coordination Committee was illegally appointed in 1997 and is yet to be reconstituted. Even at the state level, there has been no coordinated planning for implementing the Act. In 1993, the Indian government passed the Rehabilitation Council of India Act (RCI) without consulting disability groups. The Act violates the conceptual spirit of Community Based Rehabilitation and threatens punitive action against professionals without certificates or degrees from institutes recognized by RCI. The RCI criteria are unrealistic and rigid. Most importantly, it does not recognize grassroots skills for rehabilitation of the disabled.
Of all the areas concerning disability, employment is the most neglected. The first special Employment Exchange for the Disabled was established in 1959 in Mumbai. Since then the government has set up 23 special employment exchanges, 55 special cells in regular exchanges, and seventeen vocational training centers. However, the present annual placement rate of placement is 4,000, and the total placements over the last 40 years may be as few as 100,000. Conservative government estimates say there are seven million job-seeking disabled. Those placed in nongovernmental organizations earn less than the minimum wage fixed by the government for unskilled labor.
The more than 2,400 citizen organizations working on disability matters have been largely ineffective in bringing systemic social change. Moreover, their decision-making is largely in the hands of the "able-bodied." A telling evidence of disenfranchisement of the disabled is that they don't have decision-making powers even in organizations working on their behalf, only 21.42 percent of which have disabled persons in their executive bodies.
Javed and the disabilities networks he has set up have moved the parliament and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on several occasions to implement the Disability Act in its true spirit. Due to their pressure, a new Chief Commissioner has been appointed who truly understands the concerns and issues of the movement. Javed plans to maintain the lobbying for additional targets: the passage and implementation of the National Trust Bill which focuses on mental disabilities – a move to balance the heavy tilt of the Disability Act towards physical disabilities, proper reconstitution of the Central Coordination Committee of the Disability Act, and amendment of RCI.
As the head of NCPEDP, Javed is also laying groundwork for partnerships in the private sector, primarily with the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), the apex body for industry in India with a membership of over 3000 companies and a total capitalization of over U.S. $3 billion. CII has declared unequivocally that disability will be part of their corporate social agenda and that it will collaborate with NCPEDP to take up sensitization among corporate houses and private industry. Similarly, the Tata Council for Community Initiatives is working closely with NCPEDP to develop an employment policy for the disabled for all Tata companies. Javed aspires to the creation of governmental incentives that would be offered to businesses for hiring disabled individuals. He and his team are studying different international working models in preparation for proposing a relevant plan for India, and then they will advocate for government support.
Legal provisions exist for the self-employment of the disabled and their recruitment in the public sector, and Javed is working to secure implementation of these fiscal tools. For example, the government has set up the National Disabilities Finance Development Corporation to provide loans to disabled persons who are self employed, but it has been ineffective, despite an annual budget of Rs. 280,000,000 (US $6,438,261). NCPEDP is closely monitoring its functioning and helping it to identify credible partner organizations. Javed is also advocating that the Ministry of Personnel define clear job lists for the disabled in all public sector recruitment categories. The Disability Rights Groups lobbied with the finance minister of India successfully in 1995 to increase their income tax limit from Rs. 20,000(US $459) to Rs. 40,000 (US $919).
The NCPEDP organizes regional conferences throughout the year to break barriers between disability-oriented nongovernmental organizations and business houses and sensitize each to the other. Simultaneously, through the disabilities networks and the disability wing of the Rajeev Gandhi Foundation, Javed is compiling a nation-wide database of employable disabled persons for NCPEDP to operate as a matching agency.
Javed's most significant recent accomplishment has been through his involvement in a case being heard in the Supreme Court against the state of India, the aviation ministry, and Indian Airlines. Javed filed a claim when he was refused an aisle chair while traveling on Indian Airlines. A master strategist, he swung around the issue of non-availability of aisle chairs for the disabled in aircraft to the hostility of Indian airports towards the disabled, and then pointed to the non-implementation of the Disability Act of 1995 as the cause. He plans that the case will redefine travel considerations and benefits for the disabled in Indian airports, and that it will also set a precedent for their accommodation in surface transport.
Recently, Javed submitted a scheme to the University Grants Commission of India to dedicate Rs. 25,000,000 (US $574,845) yearly to accelerate making Indian campuses disabled-friendly. He has also called for the establishment of a disability unit within Indian colleges to monitor records and opportunities for disabled students, from the time of their admission to employment.
Javed was born in Aligarh, once a renaissance city known for progressive education. His father was a college lecturer and later a respected member of the Congress party.
Inaccurate medical diagnosis confined Javed to the wheelchair when he was very young. He suffers from sclerosis of the spine, and his disability could well have been controlled with timely medical intervention. However, Javed took on the active role of "ambassador for disability" when he was still in high school. When he was ten years old, his father took him to the United States for treatment where he saw the comparative respect with which the orthopedically disabled live and the empathy of the environment to disability.
Javed returned to the United States in 1995 for treatment and education in journalism and communication at Wright State University. Javed became an active member of the disability unit of the University and in other campus activities while also achieving high academic honors. However, on his return to India, jobs eluded him as most publication editors he approached did not consider the task of political reporting appropriate for him. Constrained by his disability while very highly qualified, Javed experienced employment frustrations that are common to many of the disabled Indian population. But it was a matter of time before he established his credentials as a respected political journalist.
In 1993, he was invited by Sonia Gandhi, widow of Rajeev Gandhi, the deceased prime minister of India, to set up the disability wing of the newly established Rajeev Gandhi Foundation. Javed accepted the offer because, "quitting journalism would not harm the industry, but refusing the offer would mean turning my back on so many things that I was angry about–not my disability, but the attitude of people to my disability," he says. It was a long, hard climb. Javed was learning everything afresh as a development professional. His intuitive feel for the issues as a disabled person were meshed with a hard, professional analysis of what works and what does not in the sector. For three years, he set up the disability wing of RGF single-handedly and imbued a completely fresh perspective to the organization as well as the sector at large. The component of matching grants and accountability was introduced to help partners of the disability wing of RGF move from charity to more professional approaches to the sector. Later, Javed set up the NCPEDP in collaboration with RGF and Action Aid.
Featured in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein (2007, updated edition)