//The courage of conviction

The courage of conviction

From getting polling sheets for the blind in Braille to special buses for the handicapped, Nilesh Singhit has been succesfully championing rights of the challenged.

Avantika Bhuyan

Pune, January 22: THE COUNTRY’S first comprehensive headcount of mentally and physically challenged people, released on August 9, 2004 states that there were 21,906,769 disabled people in India as in January 2001. And the number is ever-increasing as the census puts down India’s disability rate as 2.13 per cent. But human right activists and groups feel that the country doesn’t have the right kind of infrastructure to cater to the needs of disabled people.

One such person who has taken up this relentless fight is Nilesh Singhit. This 35-year-old was afflicted by cerebral palsy at birth, but this didn’t bog him down. A resident of Mumbai, Singhit was currently in the city to deliver a talk at Wadia College and Rewachand Bhojwani Academy on the issue of disability. He screws up his nose when the words challenged or the likes are used for disabled people. According to him there are three words which are used to describe disability. “They are impairment, handicap and disability-and all three are inter-linked. Impairment is a medical condition, that results in a handicap, as an impaired person can’t do things that a so-called normal person can do. However, a person is not disabled because of his handicap, but because of the environment around him,” he says.

Having done his schooling from Centre for Special Studies, which is run by Spastics Society, Mumbai, Singhit went on to do his masters in English Literature from Khalsa College. So what does he feel are the benefits of special schools vis-a-vis a school having a mixed crowd? “In a special school, I obviously got more personal attention than I would have got in a class having 40 to 50 children,” he says. But according to him there is also a negative side to it. “Disabled persons are granted concessions thoughtlessly. For instance we didn’t have to study algebra and geometry. Secondly we had to study the same book from Std VII to X. This was a loss for me, since I have to make up for the syllabus as I am appearing for GRE,” he rues.

Soon after his college, he became a part of a group called Able Disabled All People Together (ADAPT). The group would meet every Saturday and Sunday to work towards the betterment of public access to disabled people. “In 2000, when Stephen Hawking visited India, ramps were constructed everywhere so that he could easily access all public places. But shouldn’t the same infrastructure also be made avialable for us,” points out Singhit.

In 2005 when as part of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project, BEST was buying 1000 buses, Singhit and his group had sent a letter to the authorities requesting that the buses be made disabled friendly. They also shot off a letter to World Bank which was funding the project. Result—the authorities consented to make 30 out of the 1,000 buses disabled friendly. “We would have wanted all 1,000 to be made so, but this is definitely a start,” he says. In the meantime, Singhit got in touch with Deepika D’Souza, director of India Center for Human Rights and Law (ICHRL) and landed up with a job there.

“The work involves a lot of advocacy and we file cases regularly. For instance there are cases in which disabled people have been working in office for the past 20 to 30 years and still haven’t received a much deserved promotion,” he says. The one case which had a nationwide impact happened in 2004. During the Lok Sabha election, the Supreme Court had passed an order that in the forthcoming election polling booths should be made disabled friendly. “But during the preparations for Maharashtra elections no such provisions had been made. So we protested and in 2005 the Mumbai High Court passed an order that ramps be constructed and dummy Brailled sheets be provided to the blind. No ramps were constructed but 10,000 booths had Braille sheets,” he smiles.

Singhit plans to do a Ph D in disability studies from Syrucuse University and wants to give his GRE in 2007. Also in the pipeline are free legal camps- one such will be held in Pune soon.