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Making an inclusive planet for people with disabilities is an uphill task, made more difficult by widespread ignorance. We talk to Amba Salelkar, a disability rights activist, on her journey, the obstacles, and the triumphs.
How would you describe yourself? What are the things that made you who you are?
Amba Salelkar: I pride myself in being indescribable, actually, even to myself. Of late I’ve been inclined to think that despite everything we are born with, and brought up with, what really makes us who we are, are those situations that we often don’t like talking about -that don’t go on our CVs and aren’t badges of honour – and how we emerge from them, and how the experience shapes our outlook to things.
There are a lot of things that have happened to me in my life that I wish never happened, but they all have, in some way, contributed to the person I am today. This is not to say that this justifies them, or that every person should go through them, of course. But these instances mould your priorities, your definition of happiness, your estimation of your own self worth, and most of all, your sense of humour.
I talk about some of these things now – living with recurring mental illness, for example. And others, only in safe spaces and among friends, mostly because these do involve other people and discussing their actions, and with the way things spread on social media I have no interest in “proving” things or getting other people to verify things that took place maybe 15 years ago.
I have no issues discussing instances where I messed up, though – part of the adult experience is taking responsibility when it’s required.
Why did you decide to take up law? Did you face any barriers while doing so?
Amba Salelkar: I wanted to get into journalism and sneered at my dad producing a tiny cut out from a newspaper, sometime in 1998, about the “National Law School”. Since there was no undergrad in journalism that we knew of at the time (this was in Goa, we didn’t know about a lot of things) Dad convinced me that I should do a 5 year degree in law because I could always do a Masters later on. I never ended up doing that, of course.
I come from a privileged background and there were no perceivable barriers to my decision to take up law. Information was in short supply though I had no idea about all the good colleges that existed. My second option had I not got into NLSIU was ILS, Pune.
Later on, when I decided to practice Criminal Law there were a lot of barriers. NLSIU alumni did not litigate, and if they did they litigated in the Supreme Court and not before Magistrates in Bombay doing trial work. And if they did that, very few of them were women. I joined a great chamber – I was with Raja Thakare and Avadhut Chimalker for 6 years. Though it was mostly a boys’ club office, my seniors did acknowledge the specific challenges faced by me as a female lawyer with no family backing in the profession.
How did the shift to working with Disability Rights happen?
Amba Salelkar: It was a happy accident, as it were. I was litigating in Mumbai but I was looking to contribute to policy for a long time. Thanks to my seniors, I was exposed to the criminal justice system from both the perspective of the defence as well as the prosecution, which is something that I will always be indebted to them for. My takeaway from it was really that there were systemic problems, especially from the perspective of accessibility of the judicial system to anyone who wasn’t in an otherwise privileged position.
… there were systemic problems, especially from the perspective of accessibility of the judicial system to anyone who wasn’t in an otherwise privileged position.
I got in touch with Lawrence Liang, a senior from NLSIU with the Alternate Law Forum to ask if I could collaborate on efforts in policy – and coincidentally, Rahul Cherian was looking for someone to work with on disability law and policy. He was wrapping up work on the Copyright Amendment whereby persons with “print disabilities” were given the right to access published works in accessible formats by creating an exception to copyright law – and he had realized a great amount of potential for disability specific interventions in policy and legislation.
At the time, he was working on the Shadow Report on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and wanted me to help him out on analyzing the Mental Health regime. This was interesting for me, because I was, at the time, on a break from litigating in 2011/2012 on account of a bad relapse of a recurring mental illness – I’ve been living with recurring anxiety disorder and depression since I was 20 years old.
My approach to my own condition was very medically oriented, and I never viewed it as a disability, much less than through the lens of the social model of disability, which places the focus not on the impairment of the person, but more on societal barriers that prevent that person’s participation in society. At the time, I was facing, in a small way, larger issues that plague the mental health sector: access to healthcare, access to information, and the cloud that covers the belief other people have in your decision making capabilities – especially when your decisions don’t align with theirs – which was a small glimpse into the world of being denied legal capacity.
When Rahul asked me if I could join him full time, I came clean to him about my condition and the fact that I was on a lot of medication. His response was very matter of fact – to be honest with him about the accommodation I required to work, and he’d see to it that I get it.
“if you hire crazy people like this, this is what you are going to get.”
Just two months prior to this, I had a severe incident in Court because of which I had to leave the Court premises, and the Judge closed the case I was defence lawyer on for evidence. My Client took my medical certificate, issued by my psychiatrist, and asked for the Judge to reconsider his order, which he did – but not before remarking that “if you hire crazy people like this, this is what you are going to get.” That’s kind of the principle of disability work to me, that given the right support, people can and will make valuable contributions to society.
Tell us more about Inclusive Planet, and your work there. How has your experience been so far?
Amba Salelkar: There is so much to do in policy – especially policy work specific to disability – that often, you can’t figure where to begin. Different ministries and departments come up with new legislation or amendments to legislation or fresh policy all the time, so I mainly go from deadline to deadline. Since Rahul passed away in February, 2013, I’ve been unable to look at fresh areas of intervention and keep my work responsive to what gets issued by the Government.
I continually am surprised by Government bodies acknowledging our contributions and actually revising their documents to reflect the same.
I continually am surprised by Government bodies acknowledging our contributions and actually revising their documents to reflect the same. It sounds weird, I know, if I don’t think they will acknowledge this why do I even bother, then? But whenever it happens, it takes a while to sink in. We’ve been brought up with the idea that the Government does whatever it wants and “real concerns” never get reflected in the law.
But there are several opportunities to intervene in draft legislation and policy, you just need to keep an eye out for them. And while it doesn’t happen all the time, concrete suggestions and criticism are taken note of. I’ve been invited to depose before the National Human Rights Commission, the Justice Verma Commission, and various Parliamentary Standing Committees on my submissions, which is a huge honour.
What drives you to keep working in this field rife with so obstinate challenges? Could you share with us an instance when you felt that all the challenges were worth it?
Amba Salelkar: I guess it is the importance of the work I do and the fact that very few people do focused intervention on behalf of marginalized groups like the disabled. And it is an exciting space to be in because it is such a new area – and policy work is attracting a lot of good talent so the exchange of ideas is very invigorating.
In April, I joined Rajiv Rajan, Meenakshi B., and Sudha Ramamoorthy on a series of consultations in Cuddalore, Trichy, Cochin, Thenkasi, Ooty and Bangalore on the Disabilities Bill as approved by Cabinet. At the time, I was quite drained with the Bill and all the politics and stress I was exposed to, and I think it’s natural to also wonder if what you are doing is right, in the larger scheme of things.
The consultations were an attempt to find out what legal impediments people faced, what they really wanted from a Disabilities Bill. And it was overwhelming, the responses we got. The Bill as approved by Cabinet meant nothing for these people, their problems.
In Ooty, we went to a Government approved “colony” for people with disabilities and their families. The colony was far away from the heart of Ooty, and about a kilometre away from the nearest bus stop. The people living there had hardly any facilities, and were often working as bonded labour under the dominant land owning class.
To their mind, the Bill meant nothing to them in its present form – it gave them no rights beyond what was given in 1995, and did not address the barriers they faced along with their families. Though the UNCRPD is an international convention, it meant more to secure and recognize the marginalization faced by people than a legislation purportedly drafted after a series of regional consultations and civil society participation.
What, in your opinion, is the most important reform that disability rights need today?
Amba Salelkar: The inclusion of persons with disabilities needs to become a mainstream concern. By pushing it to be the problem of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (and Mental Health further relegated to the Ministry of Health) it is just increasing the instances of ghettoization of persons with disabilities. Every Ministry, every department, needs to be trained in accessibility guidelines and standards.
The principle of universal design is that all goods universally designed can be used by everyone, regardless of ability. This includes design of buildings and transport facilities, education curriculum, it goes on. We also need to support inclusion by way of raising awareness about disability which will improve early intervention and rehabilitation of persons upon developing disabilities, and removing the stigma and ridicule associated with disabilities, especially mental health related disabilities.
How could our readers, in their individual capacities, contribute in pushing for reform?
Amba Salelkar: Keep an eye out for calls for comments. I usually retweet or post such opportunities.Don’t think that your voice will not be counted. If you can, write in to the Government with your suggestions, or find organizations who are doing so and give them your suggestions. The Government isn’t comprised of as varied a section of society as one thinks, so especially if you come from or have concerns on behalf of a marginalized group, voice them. One sure way of ensuring that your voice isn’t heard is by not speaking up at all.
Pic credit: JudyVanDerValen (used under a CC license)
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