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That’s one of the questions I put to the art students in Bhopal who’d volunteered for our Inclusive Art Project to mark this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December.
After a short, lively debate among the young artists they decided the answer was ‘false’ – people with disabilities can and do work. Though – they concluded – not enough do because of the preconceptions many employers have.
The plan, devised by Sightsavers’ North India office which is based in the capital of Madhya Pradesh, was to paint murals on the walls around a major hospital at a busy traffic intersection in the city, and add messages from local people with disabilities, to raise awareness of their rights and the need for them to have equitable access to education, healthcare and jobs – all basic human rights clearly expressed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
Bhopal is a particularly poignant place to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities because 3 December is also the anniversary of the 1984 gas disaster – known here as the gas tragedy – when half a million people were exposed to a leak of poisonous methyl isocyanate and other chemicals from the Union Carbide pesticide factory.
At least 3,700 people were killed and many more left with permanent disabilities. While official studies linking the Bhopal disaster to health consequences for children and grandchildren of those exposed to the gas are lacking, a higher prevalence of disability in these generations has been observed.
On the eve of the anniversary, along with colleagues from the North India Office, I visited the Chingari Trust, an organisation set up by two survivors, Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla, to help the rehabilitation of children affected by the leak. By coincidence, the Trust is supported by The Bhopal Medical Appeal which is based in Brighton, only a few miles from Sightsavers’ head office in the UK.
Thirty-two years ago, after the disaster struck, Sightsavers immediately ramped up its activities in Bhopal given the number of people left with serious eye conditions and other disabilities. Last year, the organisation chose the city to pilot a project to develop ways to ensure people with disabilities, women and other marginalised groups get equitable access to eye health services.
Back in the present day, after two days’ work, the students from the Sarjana Academy for Design and Fine Art had their first drafts ready and presented them to Sightsavers staff and the Academy’s Director, Sunil Shukla.
Following another day’s work revising their designs, the students gathered bright and early on the morning of 3 December – which was unusually cold and foggy for this time of year in Bhopal – and quickly got to work.
Curious passers-by and local media were drawn to the spot to find out what was going on.
At the same time, in another part of the city, the Inclusive Eye Health project was mounting a different initiative in the informal settlements – known locally as ‘slums’ – of the Anand Nagar area.
Sightsavers and its partners, the development agency AARAMBH and Sewa Sadan Eye Hospital, collaborated with World Vision India to organise an eye screening camp for children and adults with disabilities.
Scores of people with their children came from the local area, and by specially provided transport, to have their eyes tested and – if they required it – be referred to the hospital for treatment or spectacles, both of which are provided free to people on low incomes.
As young boys from the district played cricket on the dusty ground next to where the clinic had been set up and cows wove in and out of the traffic on the nearby road, Madhya Pradesh’s Minister for The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation, Shri Vishwas Sarang, came to welcome the people who’d come to the camp and to thank Sightsavers and its partners for the initiative.