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Volunteering and disability: Progress in India
25 February 2005
by Vedabhyas Kundu

The Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has initiated a series of endeavors to promote volunteering for and amongst the persons with disability in India. In a vast country like India not more than 2%-3% of people with disability receive any rehabilitation services, and support in rural areas is particularly poor. The main reason for this is that adequately trained human resources are not available. Moreover, in a country with many competing priorities, disability receives a low priority.

In this backdrop, the Council has been striving to promote volunteering in the disability sector. According to Dr J P Singh, Member Secretary of the RCI, the need for volunteering is an indispensable component in developing comprehensive rehabilitation services for persons with disability.

“As there is lack of adequate trained human power in the sector, without volunteer effort little services can reach to people with disability particularly in rural areas”, he adds: “besides there is a need to change the attitude of our society and create awareness about productive potential of persons with disabilities. Each one is capable in one way or the other to utilize his/her potential and contribute to the society.”

One of the earliest interventions of the Council was the launch of a national programme to promote volunteering for and amongst the persons with disability in collaboration with International Year of Volunteers team, United Nations Volunteer (UNV) in 2001. All professionals and personnel registered with RCI were encouraged to undertake some volunteer work in their own areas as part of the programme.

Continuing in its efforts, the Council in association with Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti (GSDS) initiated a national dialogue on the issue of volunteering in disability sector in 2003. The vision of this dialogue was to promote inclusive society, wherein the disabled by birth or by accident, could play a meaningful and constructive role, assisted by committed volunteers. It was widely acknowledged that volunteering for persons with disabilities has gained tremendous attention over the last decade in response to the increasing awareness regarding disabilities across the country. The participants in the dialogue suggested that the volunteers should be equipped with necessary skills and knowledge required to handle the difficulties faced by disabled persons. It was also suggested that the local volunteers should be preferred because they are aware of local language, customs and culture of the area where disabled are living.

The national dialogue came up with several critical points aimed at volunteer promotion in the disability sector. By insisting on greater participation of persons with disability in all activities of the society, the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities,Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act has highlighted the role of people with disability as assertive, productive and constructive providers of services and not as passive receivers of these services and a burden on society. In this background, according to Dr J P Singh, all volunteer programmes in the disability sector should promote integration. Volunteering can be a perfect way for persons with disability to have meaningful volunteer experiences, increase social activities and develop a greater sense of contributing to the society of which they are an integral part.

The national dialogue felt that volunteering amongst persons with disability is actually a two way process. Volunteering opens up avenues through which persons with disability can get an opportunity to learn, gain marketable skills and develop personally and professionally meaningful social connections that could eventually lead to paid employment. At the same time, the voluntary services offer many possibilities for differently abled people to contribute to their community in ways that bring them the joy, sense of belonging and the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others.

The action plan which emerged out of the national dialogue included:

  • Create awareness on various types of disabilities.
  • Provide counseling services to the families of persons with disabilities.
  • Equip volunteers with the necessary skills and knowledge required to handle the difficulties faced by the disabled.
  • Create professional cadre of qualified people
  • Act as a pressure group in highlighting and implementing policies and programmes for the disabled.
  • Local volunteers should be preferred since they are aware of the local language, customs, and culture of the disabled.
  • Language skills, counseling skills should be incorporated in the training programme.
  • Optimize the potentials of volunteers enrolled under the movement.
  • Create employment opportunity for the disabled in both the urban and the rural areas.
  • Provide barrier-free access for the disabled. Accessibility is a major problem faced by disabled.
  • Coordinate with the various schemes of the NGO’s requiring volunteers in disability sector.
  • Promote integrative educational approach.
  • Change the attitude of the community and remove myths and misconceptions regarding disabilities.
  • Bring out the hidden talents and efficiency in the disabled

As a follow-up to the national dialogue, the Council, according to Dr. JP Singh organized orientation programmes to orient self-help group leaders who had no previous working experience with the disabled. The aim was to promote volunteering amongst them so that they can contribute to the removal of myths around disabilities and to raising awareness about the productive potential of people with disabilities.

In an effort to take stock of the situation and progress made since the national dialogue organized by the Council and Gandhi Smriti, another dialogue will be organized in March 2005 by the two organizations. This dialogue will in fact be organized as a tribute to the 75th anniversary of epic Dandi March undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi between March 12 and April 6, 1930 to break the discriminatory Salt Law in vogue at that time.