Census Body Mulls Changes to Collect Data on Disability
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17 April 2010
By Shalini Umachandran
Based on the premise that the population of the disabled in India is a grossly underestimated figure, the Census Commission is now considering a proposal to train enumerators in the field and widen the scope of the question to be administered for greater accuracy in data.
In the last census in 2001 – the seventh since Independence – the disabled were counted for the first time, and India estimated it had over 21 million (21,906,769) disabled people, a figure that’s strongly disputed.
“It is a gross underestimation,” says Javed Abidi, honorary director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, Delhi, who was part of the group that fought to have disability included in the last census. “About 60 million people, between 5 and 6% of the population, are disabled,” says Abidi.
His view is endorsed by the Planning Commission’s XI five year plan, which says there was “serious deficiency in census data” relating to the disabled. The fact that neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and China report a disabled population of 5.6%, 7% and 6.3% respectively while India’s numbers stand at 2.1%. is a case in point.
The question in the last census was limited to the five main categories of disability – hearing, speech, sight, movement and mental disability. It did not even make a distinction between mental retardation and mental illness. Nor did it account for multiple disabilities or conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, thallasaemia and dwarfism. A number of enumerators did not even ask the question.
To rectify the situation, the Census Commission is considering a recommendation to widen the scope of the question relating to disability to make it more specific in the forthcoming nationwide exercise (see graphic).
“The recommendation from the disabled sector has been forwarded to the Technical Advisory Committee, which will meet later this month, and a final decision on including it in the questionnaire will be taken,” says C Chandramouli, Census Commissioner. “For the 2001 census, the question was included at the last minute and was asked without training enumerators,” says Chandramouli. “So it is possible that there were errrors. There are limitations to the census process. So this time we have consulted the disabled community.”
Statistics on disability can help policy–making at every stage from development and implementation to assessment and monitoring of programmes. “We often have government organisations telling us that they cannot help us as there aren’t enough disabled to justify a separate policy. For instance, when we ask for disabled–friendly buses, we are often told that there are no disabled people using public transport,” says Rajiv Rajan, coordinator, disability legislation unit, Vidyasagar.
Population studies experts say comprehensive data is necessary to formulate the right policies. “You not only need information on the kind and extent of disability, you also need information on the number of caregivers, literacy levels among disabled, etc to formulate the right policies,” says Irudaya Rajan S, professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
According to the eleventh plan, even on a conservative level, persons with disabilities are estimated constitute anywhere between 5% to 6% of the total population.
If the recommended question is included, the data collected on the number and forms of disability is expected to be more accurate. This will, in turn, aid policy–making, right from distribution of aids and appliances to inducting disabled–friendly buses to reservation in employment.
The note of optimism is hard to miss. “We were the invisible minority. No one saw us, so no one wanted to count us. This time around we are working in partnership with the Census Commission,” says Abidi.
The challenge also lies in creating awareness among the disabled to come forward and get counted. “It’s naive to believe that just getting the question right is enough, enumerators have to ask the questions and the disabled have to volunteer information,” says Abidi. “We all have a role to play. This is a once–in–a–decade opportunity.”
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