Javed Abidi

Friend of the disabled

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Javed Abidi. Photo: V. Sudershan

Members of the Disabled Rights Group celebrate in New Delhi on December 16, 2017, after The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016, was passed by the Lok Sabha. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Javed Abidi (1965-2018) worked relentlessly all his life to improve the lives of the disabled and help them live with dignity.

FOR a little under three decades, Javed Abidi was the face that came to the public mind on any issue concerning the disabled. This recall value was based on Abidi’s sustained work—his ability to run from pillar to post in the quest to make the nation more friendly to the disabled. For years he fought the notoriously lethargic bureaucracy, and for decades he fought social stereotypes and prejudices, at a time when terms like “handicapped” were an accepted part of social conversation and terms such as differently abled or specially abled had not yet found their way into social vocabulary. For years he fought a political system where most parties offered nothing more than homilies. And when he did press for affirmative action for the community, he stayed politically neutral.

After several years of heartburning and frustration, he succeeded. The Disability Act was possible owing to his perseverance, his ability to take one step at a time but never stop or procrastinate. In his relentless pursuit of the common needs of the disabled, Abidi concentrated on what he did best: bringing about a change at the ground level through relentless toil. He became the pioneer of the cross-disability movement whereby people with varying special skills came on a common platform. Thus was founded the Disabled Rights Group in 1993. The group worked on cross-disability issues of access. It was courtesy his effort that many stadiums, cinemas, railway stations and airports began to have ramps, allowing for easier passage of the wheelchair-bound, and tessellation flooring facilitating the movement of the visually challenged.

Then came the turn of monuments such as Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar, which too became disabled-friendly. It was a small step for the authorities but a giant leap for the disabled community. Slowly, Abidi began to be taken seriously. He was not just another activist. For the world he was somebody; for the specially abled he was the world.

Indeed, his life was a relentless pursuit of dignity for the community. He played an important role in getting Parliament to pass the crucial Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. Incidentally, it was the passage of this Act that showed the truly wide horizon of Abidi, his ability to overcome political challenges.

The Disability Rights Bill was mooted during the United Progressive Alliance regime but could not be passed. When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government took charge in 2014, he pursued the Bill with the new dispensation, much to the chagrin of some of his supporters. Abidi, however, proved that the rights of the disabled surmounted any political affiliation or the lack of it. When the Bill was passed, many found it wanting in adequate safeguards for the disabled. Abidi understood their viewpoint, but was pragmatic enough to understand that the new Act gave recognition to 21 disability conditions, which was a vast improvement over the seven types agreed upon in the 1990s.

More recently, his voice rose above the din surrounding the implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST). The Central government put several items of daily need for the specially abled in the high taxation slab. Thus, wheelchairs, hearing aids and Braille paper came under GST with the tax rates ranging from 12 per cent to 18 per cent.

Abidi protested, took to Twitter, and succeeded in getting the government to announce a partial rollback of GST on these items—the tax was revised to 5 per cent. But Abidi was not satisfied with partial success. He wanted the tax to be waived completely on items of use for the specially abled. This ability to hold his own in front of the powerful was in complete consonance with his tenet of “Nothing About Us Without Us”. Abidi’s was not a one-way “I demand, you deliver” tactic though. If he prevailed upon successive governments to be more open to the interests of the disabled, he also tried to bring about a change in the mindset of the community. He wanted the community to fight for its share of the pie like any other Indian and live and compete on equal terms with others. He insisted on avoiding any doles or sops.

This call to the community to fight its own battles came through in his appreciation of the noted director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Black, in which the lead character is a disabled girl. Abidi liked the fact that the film had no sermons on special interests of the disabled and did not preach social exclusion in the name of greater care.

Importantly, the film was invested with a rare sensitivity, no mean achievement as the industry has been notorious for cheap thrills at the expense of the specially abled. Expressions like “andha” (visually challenged) and “behra” (hearing impaired) have often been passed by the censor board without a thought for the sensitivity of the community. Abidi was appreciative of the director’s attempt to instil a sense of independence in the section.

The same principle stayed in place for him when he was at the helm of the National Centre for the Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.

For the disabled, employment was not something to be handed out as a petty concession but a right won on merit. For life to be lived with dignity, the disabled have to have jobs that enable them to do so on their terms.

Abidi, born in 1965, found no signs of social exclusion in Aligarh where he grew up. Early in life he was diagnosed with spina bifida. Owing to a lack of adequate medical care, there was nerve damage in subsequent years. A fall at the age of 10 meant that he had to undergo an operation. Soon afterwards, he was treated in the Children’s Hospital in Boston in the United States. He was never able to walk after that and was confined to a wheelchair by the age of 15.

Then, to the surprise of his parents, he went to the U.S. to pursue media studies. In 1990, he came back to India, armed with a graduation degree from the Wright State University in Ohio and with dreams of making it to a big newspaper. But unable to get a job, he began doing freelance writing and working for the rights of the specially abled.

He recalled in an interview to The Hindu: “For the first time, it hit me that I am disabled. I was treated as a normal child at home and by my friends in Aligarh and also in the U.S. I was so self-dependent. I never felt disability before.”

As a journalist and activist, he met Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in the early 1990s. The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation was a work in progress then. She asked him to set up a disability centre there. Abidi found the offer irresistible. A little later, he founded the Disability Rights Group. This was to be the beginning of a social movement aimed at making life a wee bit better for the specially abled.

The movement bore fruit a couple of years later when Parliament passed the Persons with Disabilities Act towards the end of 1995. Abidi did not stop with that. In the new millennium, following his letter to the Chief Justice of India, the Supreme Court issued directions to make polling booths accessible for the differently abled. Abidi was also to be the global chair of the Disabled People International.

Amidst all the challenges and triumphs, his sense of humour never left him. And his optimism was contagious. Once, in a lighter vein, he told The Hindu: “When I was born, the doctor, seeing a lump on my back, strangely predicted that I will live for only 20 days. I was my parents’ firstborn. They were heart-broken but not ready to give up. They named me Javed, which means immortal in Urdu. Today, there is a joke in the family that I might live up to my name.”

Abidi could not live forever but he did succeed in living way beyond the doctor’s prediction. Javed Abidi’s life was all about pushing the boundaries of possibilities.

He pushed, he petitioned, he prayed. He succeeded.

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