When it comes to the welfare of Persons with Disability (PWDs), India lags behind the developed world by a huge margin. Out of the 26.8 million PWDs in India, only about three percent are gainfully employed, whereas in developed countries, the employment rate of PWDs is between 30% and 50%.
It is statistics like this which is a major cause for concern and what drives me to champion the cause of PWDs, like myself. In keeping with this, I decided to associate myself with the Thums Up Veer campaign which came about as an endeavour to create awareness on and address challenges such as inclusive education and employment, skill training and development for PWDs, and advocating for disabled-friendly technology. Being the first Indian to win a medal at the Para-World Championships (IPC) and the pioneer of quadriplegic wheelchair tennis in India, I believe that it is my mission in life to advocate this cause. Thums Up envisaged a campaign which focused on the following four things: Promote and spread the use of sign language in India; Understand the aims and aspirations of the differently-abled with a view to influence public policy which is beneficial for them; Create a platform for exchange of ideas and best practices between PWDs and motivate and inspire the specially abled to unleash the potential within them. Given that this was so close to my heart, my dream was made a reality when they approached me and I readily agreed to be the face of this campaign . This expedition was a 30 day journey across 5400 Kms from Kashmir to Kanyakumari covering 14 cities during which I met thousands of people, students, government officers, civil society workers and sensitized them on various aspects and requirements of PWDs. As a part of this expedition I also trained nearly 10,000 people in sign language and hosted awareness programs for them.
Following this journey, I decided to write to the PMO requesting an audience so that I could share my experience on this expedition along with highlight how it was built on the government’s Accessible India initiative of making the country disable friendly. The meeting was a highly anticipated one where I was groomed in advance by my team at Coca-Cola India. I was accompanied by Mr. Ishteyaque Amjad of Coca-Cola India and Mr. Nishant Pandey from the American India Foundation. In contrast to the formal ambience I had expected, the meeting was instead very warm and informal. It was a very humbling experience to be embraced by our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and be applauded for my achievements and contributions. To be able to meet and interact with a person of such a stature is indeed no mean feat and what touched me most was how genuinely interested he seemed, both in the initiative as well as my contributions. In the course of the meeting we discussed a number of topics in line with the Accessible India campaign and requested Mr. Modi support the petition urging his office and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to make “sign language”, an official language of India by including it in the Eight Schedule, which he did readily.
Apart from the social implications of bringing PWDs to the forefront, the economic implications are also important. According to a report by The World Bank, excluding PWDs from the mainstream leads to a loss of 3% – 7% from India’s GDP realisation. Initiatives such as Thums Up Veer are essential vehicles of spearheading such change and making India a disable friendly nation. An expedition of this nature was only possible with the support and backing by Mr. Debabrata Mukherjee of the Thums Up Veer initiative. Now, backed with the blessings of the PM, I am all set to take my endeavour further to create greater awareness and sensitivity about the cause of PWDs on a larger scale.
Harry Boniface Prabhu is an Indian quadriplegic wheelchair tennis player, one of the pioneers of the sport in India and a medal winner at the 1998 World Championships