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Meet Arman Ali, India’s Disability Rights Activist Breaking Glass Ceiling

© Photo : NCPEDPArman Ali, a disability rights activist, the Executive Director of NCPEDP
Arman Ali, a disability rights activist, the Executive Director of NCPEDP - Sputnik India, 1920, 13.12.2022
Arman Ali, along with the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, has had a great effect on the life of millions of disabled people in India.
Aged only three, Arman Ali's dreamed of becoming a police officer when he grew up. But his dreams were shattered when he discovered that the disabilities which accompanied the cerebral palsy (CP) he sustained at birth hampered his movement and posture.
Nothing daunted Ali and his parents were determined that he should make the most of his life and live it as much as possible like any other human being.
A crack marksman who shoots at a national level and has won several gold medals is now one of India’s biggest disability rights activists. Ali worked closely with Javed Abidi - former head of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) who died in 2018 - and has made a big impact, smashing the glass ceiling for millions of people with different abilities.
But having been confined to a wheelchair, Ali started to experience societal prejudices and disability discrimination from an early age.
During kindergarten, Ali’s parents were asked to remove their son from the school because of a lack of accessible infrastructure.
“I have that memory still - you know that one day, the principal asked my father to meet him and they said that they could not look after me in the school because the school toilet was not accessible. There was a flight of steps to reach it and I was not able to go, there was no help in there,” Ali tells Sputnik.
After dropping out of school, Ali studied with a home tutor and later completed his schooling and graduated having taken a correspondence course.
As well as the discrimination and rejection, doing even the simplest thing or living a normal life was a big struggle for Ali.

“I've been pushed out of Uber cabs because they didn't want my wheelchair. I've been called a Pakistani in a cinema hall for not standing up while the national anthem was being played. I have been carried to the polling booth on the first floor, even though it should have been accessible to me. So, incidents such as these keep happening to people with disabilities,” Ali said.

There are millions of disabled people all over the world who, like Ali, face severe challenges every day.
“Just trying to go and buy something, travel somewhere, go to a movie... it requires planning as there are not many options and few buildings are disabled friendly. But it has become a part of my life, and I'm a little more organized. So, it doesn't break my heart every day. But it is tough,” Ali said.

Fight Against Disability Discrimination

One of the biggest incidents in his life was in 2011 when he was refused membership by the gym.
“The reason being," Ali said, “they thought I couldn’t do it. They delayed my membership for three months. For any other person, you just go to a gym, pay them for membership and start working out. Just because I was in a wheelchair and had a disability, they made the process very tough.”
From getting a medical certificate that declared him to be fit to work out in a gym to making his doctors speak to the management, Ali did all that was required to get membership.

“They made it tough for me by calling me to the gym at around two o'clock in the afternoon and offered me a one-month temporary membership. I've been discriminated and my fundamental rights have been infringed,” Ali added.

This experience spurred him to knock on the doors of the Gauhati High Court which directed the both the fitness firm and the Assam state government each to pay him damages of INR 50,000 ($606).
“My case kind of set a precedent for other people to seek the help of the court when they think that they have been discriminated against,” Ali said.
Instances of rejection and discrimination made Ali all the more determined to fight for the rights of specially abled people and to combat misinformation and lack of awareness concerning disability.

Joining the workforce

At just 14, Ali joined his father's business after he dropped out of school in the seventh standard. But in 1998, at the age of 18, Ali won a national award for the best self-employed youth by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment conferred by the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
After receiving a national award, opportunities opened for him and he started working in the disability sector and joined Shishu Sarothi Centre for Rehabilitation and Training for Multiple Disability, and later, the Infosys for Equal Opportunity Initiative.
“After getting an award, I was exposed to the sector and things just kept happening one after the other. I have never applied for a job in my life. I was always asked to come and join and take an assignment,” Ali said.
Describing himself as fortunate for being able to secure education and employment, Ali shared that in general, it is tough for disabled people to find employment.
“I think, education and employment, both are tough to get for specially-abled people. People with disability hardly receive any meaningful education and less than 1 percent of them get any meaningful employment. When you want to compete in the labor market, there are not enough opportunities and there are prejudices,” he said.
Ali’s work in India’s disability movement gained momentum after he met Javed Abidi, India’s leading disability rights activist and founder of NCPEDP.

India Signs UN Convention on Rights of Disabled People

After joining up back in 2007, NCPEDP, along with the Indian government, made history by ratifying the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
“When this discourse was on with the UN and during the drafting of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, we kept the pressure on the government to send their representative to the UN. India very graciously accepted and signed the UNCRPD in 2007,” he said.
India's move sent a strong message that the country was looking to make the lives of people with disabilities much easier by orchestrating an equitable solution for everyone.

Rights of Persons with Disability Act Formed

After India ratified UNCRPD in 2007, the discourse to have strong law in harmony with the international convention kicked off.
However, to amend the Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Act 1995, several hurdles came in that delayed in getting the new law pass.

“The NCPEDP, under the leadership of Javed Abidi, along with National Disability Network, formed a committee and identified that there were 200 amendments required. We drafted a new law that was envisaged by us as a sector, and shared it with the government,” said Ali, who took over as NCPEDP executive director after Abidi died in 2018.

However, when the new Bill was tabled in the upper house, it was postponed because of the general election in India in 2014.
“A lot of people met political leaders and members of the parliament, asking them to let the RPD Bill pass that year. However, consensus could not be reached,” Ali said.
The committee convinced one of the political leaders to introduce the Bill to parliament again in 2016. And eventually, it was passed and became an Act.
According to the RPWD Act 2016, discrimination against people with a disability is a punishable offense.

“Even if you insult them in public view or try to physically harm any person with disability, it leads to six months to five years of jail along with a penalty that goes up to INR 500,000 ($6140),” Ali said.

Ali boasts that India has one of the strongest and most powerful game-changing legislations in the world for people with disability, but said that it has not yet been implemented in the complete sense of it.
“Because of the pandemic in the past two-and-a-half years and since the RPWD Act is a new law, disabled people don't know much about it. There is still a lot of awareness that need to be created among people with disabilities and others,” Ali said.

Where does India stand?

More than a billion people worldwide are estimated to be living with some form of disability, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).
India has around 27 million people with disability, whether physical or mental, which is 2.21 percent of the total population, according to India’s 2011 census.
Ali tells Sputnik that India is long overdue for the latest census and data on people with disability that can help the organizations monitor, evaluate and improve on making a disabled-friendly nation.
“Be it rich or poor, you'll find people with disabilities across the spectrum. Disability is diverse and India recognizes 21 categories of disability in its new law. Finding a solution for everyone and taking everybody along is a long haul, but it's a work in progress,” Ali said.
For a large country such as India, Ali said that a lot of our struggle is about survival rather than equal opportunity and participation, as it should have been.

“Youth with disabilities are coming forward and asking questions and seeking equal participation and so on. If we, as people with disabilities, are focused on what needs to be done, and we engage with all stakeholders on an equal basis, when you have a seat at a table, I think we should be there in time to come,” Ali shared.

What needs to be done?

At present the need is to create mass awareness for all about disability rights and create an inclusive society.
“A large campaign around disability for a couple of years or more than five years kind of a mission needs to be done. There is a need to create a larger understanding of disability rights and inclusion within the political space, into the systems of government and various stakeholders. And until that happens, it cannot be left at people's whims and mercy or on charity and welfare mode,” Ali stated.
He stressed that disability has to become part of the development to get people to change their outlook.

“Disability is always shown in a stereotypical way, where you want to portray somebody who's a superhero, or somebody who is sick, or incapable of doing anything at par with their non-disabled counterpart. So, this needs to go away. People with disabilities are people first: their needs are no different, they also want education, employment, and freedom to go from one place to another,” Ali said.

Inclusion of technology

When it comes to making disability a part of social development, accessibility remains at the heart of the agenda.
We need to create inclusive education for all and bring an innovative solution to make all infrastructure, transport, and information accessible for people with disabilities.
“We have been in talks about setting up an assistive technology hub in India where people can do more research to find market space, and try to create more awareness about issues around disability and assistive technology,” Ali concluded.