A click for inclusivity

Updated: May 30, 2020, 08:41 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

For persons with disabilities, the nationwide lockdown has thrown up new challenges for the present and future. A look at how organisations and individuals are developing digital initiatives to support them

Deaf ISL interpreter Hardeep Singh and Spitfire in the Vartalap video. Pic/YouTube
Deaf ISL interpreter Hardeep Singh and Spitfire in the Vartalap video. Pic/YouTube

As soon as the nationwide lockdown was announced, Shameer Rishad, 22, convenor of the Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) in Delhi — a rights-based organisation that was constituted to honour the legacy of his uncle and disability rights activist — started receiving calls from students with disabilities. They were frantic with worry since they were asked to leave their hostels and were concerned about where and how they will go, and what happens to their caregivers.

On April 3, the organisation decided to have a formal consultation with over 30 participants, given that the pandemic has caused issues across the socio-economic spectrum; while those on the lower end might have to figure out ration, those who can afford caregivers need to know how they can reach them now.

Having found the disability-inclusive guidelines issued by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) under Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) to be inadequate, they wrote to the Prime Minister's Office marking MSJE, who on April 29, directed the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to issue an advisory to all states and UTs so that students with disabilities receive support. Rishad, 22, states that the MHRD is yet to respond.

Bridging access

Rajat Agrawal and Rajen Nair
Rajat Agrawal and Rajen Nair

While authorities stress on achieving atmanirbharta, or self-reliance — a luxury for many — organisations, institutions and people have been working in their individual capacities to ensure that persons with disabilities (PwDs) are not an afterthought.

Mumbai-based Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC), which offers direct support, training and research services, realised the gravity of the lockdown in March itself and have content creation work going on in full swing. "We're also looking at how we can do hands-on training online and are working to come up with a web-based resource that enables a lay person to work as an educator for blind people," says XRCVC director Dr Sam Taraporevala.

IIT Roorkee's Anushruti Academy for the Deaf (AAD) started online lessons for their students in mid-April. Planning was the hardest part. "Most of our children hail from low-income backgrounds and didn't have smartphones or 4G connections. Our school strength is about 95 and so we didn't have a database to group students according to classes and subjects either," says Rajat Agrawal, professor at IIT-R and joint manager at AAD. Once these arrangements were made, teachers at AAD recorded videos in such a manner that lip movement was emphasised. These are then sent to students via WhatsApp groups. Teachers stay online from 11 am to 1 pm to take queries and parents act as intermediaries.

Care for all

A drawing by Kerala-based Naveena Nair submitted on Rajen Nair’s page
A drawing by Kerala-based Naveena Nair submitted on Rajen Nair's page

The role of the caregiver also ought to be paid attention to when the sense of isolation can be overwhelming. Jehanzeb Baldiwala, director, mental health services at Ummeed Child Development Centre (CDC) says that many children with developmental disabilities that they cater to cannot comprehend this change. It is also hard for them to make the switch to online school as "they cannot sit and stare at a screen for so long." Thus, they thought of a leisure-space and launched an online fun club for children aged between eight to 12 where dancing, movement exercises and read-alouds take place as well as a workshop for the mental well-being of caregivers.

City-based photojournalist Rajen Nair, who has been teaching photography to PwDs and children diagnosed with cancer for a decade, launched the Cancer Art Project on Instagram as well as Enabled Photography on Twitter as a platform for them to showcase their artistic talent. He has been receiving submissions from across the country. Nair himself lost hearing in his left ear in 2000 and was diagnosed with Tinnitus that causes a ringing noise in the ear. "I've always emphasised on independence — that you shouldn't be known for your disability but your work. This isn't our identity. It is important that kids have creativity," he tells us.

Jehanzeb  Baldiwala and Shameer Rishad
Jehanzeb Baldiwala and Shameer Rishad

On the music front, IncInk records, in collaboration with AccioMango and Access Mantra Foundation released its first Indian Sign Language (ISL) video of rapper Spitfire's Vartalap, as part of a petition to make ISL India's 23rd language. The video was signed and translated by deaf ISL interpreter Hardeep Singh. The process was fascinating for Singh as it was trilingual — Spitfire's lyrics were in Hindi/Urdu which had to be translated in English and then in ISL. "My mentor [Dr Alim Chandani] and I had to figure out how to compress the signs and provide the same meaning as what the rapper expressed. Sign language is a complex, visual language with its own grammar," Singh says.

Road ahead

Apart from the financial crunch, the challenge remains the delivery of physical services due to the lack of public transport. For instance, Baldiwalla states that kids with developmental disabilities primarily require physiotherapy and occupational therapy. "If they are given botox, the muscle requires movement, otherwise you're back to square one. We also have to prepare children for the post-lockdown phase since sanitising spaces is key. They might get scared to see people in masks or wear one," she asserts.

Rishad stresses that the ex-gratia amount of R1,000 for PwDs sanctioned under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana is meagre. He wants multiple questions addressed and says, "Can a database be created to check on this marginalised community? How accessible will quarantine/testing/vaccination facilities be? We need to learn the diversity in disability and not blanket the term."

Virtual support

For a compiled list of ISL interpreters volunteering for deaf people who need to visit hospitals for COVID-related cases
Log on to https://www.accessmantra.com/covid19

For recreational resources and safety guidelines for persons with blindness and low vision during the lockdown
Log on to www.xrcvc.org

To enrol children with developmental disabilities in an online fun club and register for a workshop on nurturing your mental health as a caregiver
Log on to ummeed.org

For persons with disabilities who wish to showcase their creativity on the web
Log on to Enabled Photography on Twitter

To sign a petition to make ISL an official language
Log on to https://bit.ly/ISLPetition

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