Disability in Focus

  • USAID officials participate in the National Convention of Women with Disabilities in 2018. Photograph courtesy Reena Mohanty
  • Ashok Hans (right) with Don McKay, then chair of the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee, UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Photograph courtesy Reena Mohanty
  • Parag Panchal (left) and Nita Panchal of the Gujarat Gender Disability Resource Centre. Photograph courtesy Reena Mohanty

Odisha-based Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre works to empower women with disabilities through capacity building training, supported by funding from USAID.

Persons with disabilities are considered a marginalized group across the world, and they often face multiple challenges that can make it extremely difficult or even impossible for them to function. These include physical, attitudinal, policy and social barriers. Among the many organizations working to improve the situation is the Odisha-based Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre (SMRC). It is a voluntary organization that aims to create an environment where persons with disabilities can enjoy equal rights as others. 

The idea of the organization started in 1974 when Ashok Hans, a 22-year-old from Odisha, met with a traffic accident and became tetraplegic due to a spinal cord injury. Two major triggers for setting up SMRC were his inability to find rehabilitation services in Odisha and his visit to the United States in 1984, where his friends introduced him to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became a law in 1990. The people he met there were already talking of the need for a global treaty.

Back home, in 1985, Hans decided to establish SMRC to promote the rights of people with disabilities in India, particularly gendered and in the rural areas. While SMRC went on to advocate for a disability law in India, it also worked to ensure that women with disabilities were part of the advocacy processes at the international level. For instance, the inclusion of women’s rights, as well as measures to ensure safety in situations of risk, in the United Nations Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) were two issues Hans initiated as SMRC’s core focus areas. 

“It was not easy work. The stigma of disability and superstitions related to it do not go away easily, and continue even today,” says Reena Mohanty, program director at SMRC. The most important component of SMRC’s work has been directed toward rural areas. “We soon realized,” says Mohanty, “that missing from the voice of millions of the disabled were the voices of the women.” SMRC decided to pursue evidence-based advocacy. Over the years, it has consulted thousands of women to promote their causes. “In every advocacy program, we have been trying to include women with disabilities,” adds Mohanty.

Asha Hans, co-founder of SMRC, says that women are excluded because of patriarchal structures, their low literacy and limited opportunities for work, which lead to their marginalization. “When they learn to voice their rights,” she says, “women create changes in the attitudes of family and society.” 

At the ground level, SMRC’s major work with women with disabilities started in 2008-09, in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. The focus was on health and livelihood.  In 2012, the organization expanded its work to Karnataka and Gujarat. 

SMRC has also founded the Women with Disabilities India Network, which continues to work across the country and represents their issues at international fora. During 2014-16, the organization received support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance to implement a project, titled “Building the Capacity of Women with Disabilities in India: Promoting the Right to Health and Advancing Zero Tolerance for Violence,” in Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka and Telangana. As part of the project, four Gender Disability Resource Centres were set up in the states. SMRC conducted 40 capacity building workshops and trained about 1,480 women on the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act, their rights and entitlements. Women with disabilities in these states continue to get support in various forms for programs on sexual and reproductive health of adolescents.

In 2019, USAID provided funding to support another SMRC project, titled “Building the Capacity of Women With Disabilities in India: Promoting their Rights to Independent Living in the Community and Ending Violence.” This project, being implemented in Gujarat, Odisha and Telangana, has set up Rural Gender Disability Resource Centers. It uses a multi-method approach and aims to empower women with disabilities by building their capacity for independent living in the community, right to access shelters and not to be institutionalized. It will provide access to knowledge, training opportunities, government schemes and, above all, livelihood through access to entrepreneurship. 

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.