"December 3 is World Disability Day and, sure enough, as is customary, much will be made of it," wrote the author of an article in The Hindu's Sunday magazine on 4 December, which focussed on the families of the disabled whose situation, she pointed out, receives even less public and media attention than those under their care.

As it turned out, she was wrong about her first assertion. It is generally true that occasions such as the International Day of Disabled Persons (instituted by the United Nations in 1992) usually generate more media coverage for such issues than can be expected through the rest of the year. However, this year even such short-lived attention was largely missing. What with the Natwar Singh-Anil Matherani brouhaha, the Supreme Court's judgement on Bangalore's "live bands," Amitabh Bachchan's illness, and other such vital issues occupying the media's mind on and around 3 December, the disabled (or the differently abled) found little space for their concerns even on a day meant to focus attention on their prospects, problems and potential.

The physically and mentally challenged were, for example, completely missing from the front pages of Bangalore's English press that Saturday. While they were totally absent in The Asian Age (AA), the visually impaired found mention in a tiny item on page 2 of The Times of India (TOI) as recipients of white canes presented to them by a local organisation. The only acknowledgement of the day on the news pages of The New Indian Express (NIE) was a small report at the bottom of page 4 about the cane-distribution event. However, its City Express supplement did have a half-page article on a talented sportswoman whose hearing and speech impairment has not stood in the way of her winning the country's top sports awards.

Besides a brief report on the cane distribution event, The Hindu had a special report on page 4 on the state government's failure to comply with its own notification regarding the reservation of posts in certain categories of government jobs for persons with disabilities. Vijay Times (VT) also had a special story on page 2, highlighting the paucity of facilities for the treatment of fractures and other such injuries in government hospitals and making the point that the lack of and/or inappropriate treatment of common injuries is a major cause of "man-made," as opposed to congenital or illness-related, disabilities. It also carried three reports in its city supplement, including an interview-based piece on the front page.

The number of persons with disability in India is huge, variously estimated at five to ten per cent of the country's population, which amounts to 50 to 100 million people.

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Although there was no mention of the disabled on the news pages of Deccan Herald (DH), the paper devoted considerable space to the subject on its opinion pages and was the only one to highlight the issue through an editorial. Both the first edit and the leader article on the editorial page, and a special piece on the op-ed page (interestingly by a visually impaired sports journalist), covered various aspects of the issue.

So, yes, there was some coverage and some of it deserves applause. But, considering that this represents peak coverage for the year it can hardly be considered adequate, especially in view of the fact that the number of persons with disabilities in India is huge, variously estimated at five to ten per cent of the country's population, which amounts to 50 to 100 million people.

Apart from that, only a small proportion of this minimal coverage served the primary purpose of the International Day of Disabled Persons, which is to promote public understanding of disability issues, mobilise public support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities, and increase public awareness of the societal benefits of integrating persons with disabilities into every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. Indeed, the theme for this year - Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Action in Development - was scarcely reflected in the scant coverage that did take place.

A mixed bag

On 4 December the topic of disabilities received a little more media attention, particularly in the Sunday magazine sections and other supplements. Despite the fact that various organisations had held events to mark the occasion, the news pages were still reticent, although DH and VT had front page photographs of physically challenged students participating in celebrations the previous day. While the NIE had no coverage in its main section or City Express supplement, the TOI restricted its coverage to a brief report on page 4 on two of the several events that had taken place in the city on Saturday.

The AA had a slightly longer report on the front page of its Bangalore supplement on an event at which disabled persons used the presence of the state's deputy chief minister to take the government to task for having neglected their long-standing demands. The event was also covered by VT and The Hindu on page 3, but the latter's report was marred by its headline - "Disabled persons rant and rave about state apathy" - which somewhat negated the fact that the minister himself admitted that most of their grievances were genuine. Events in the city as well as in other parts of the country, including an official function in Delhi at which the President of India spoke up for the disabled, were covered by some of the papers.

The Sunday Herald of DH devoted most of its first page to a special story "of a woman who decided to overlook her own inabilities and make a difference in the lives of others," as well as an article reproduced from The Guardian about Stephen Hawking, arguably the most celebrated differently abled person in the world, after Helen Keller. The Views & Reviews magazine section of The New Sunday Express carried a half-page piece on "Enabling the Disabled," pointing to the several avoidable and removable barriers that stand in the way of their enjoying a full and fulfilling life. Together with The Hindu piece on the families of the differently abled (mentioned above), these were the only features on the subject the day after the International Day of Disabled Persons. None of the other Sunday magazine sections paid any attention to the occasion.

The only other noteworthy articles during the first six days of December were a feature in the women's supplement of DH about a chain of beauty salons whose employees are all "differently abled but equally skilled" and a special report in the TOI headlined "Hospitals are not disabled-friendly," describing the absence of special facilities for the physically challenged in hospitals across the state.

This uneven treatment fits in with patterns of media coverage of other issues deemed "soft" according to traditional hierarchies of news, which prioritise "hard news" areas such as politics (in the narrowest sense of the word), economics/business, violence of various kinds, and so on, and give precedence to events over processes. "Soft" issues are wrongly assumed to rightly belong to the features sections, where the "human interest angle" can be highlighted - although, these days, features seem to be erroneously equated with celebrity and lifestyle journalism. If such issues appear on the news pages at all, it is almost always thanks to an event that a reporter is routinely assigned to cover. The few exceptions - including serious comment on the editorial and op-ed pages - are invariably due to the special interest of an individual journalist within the organisation, who goes out of his or her way to ensure decent coverage.

Clearly little has changed since the Centre for Development Learning, Bangalore, discovered in the course of a broader study on press coverage of development in 2000 that "No serious discussions on issues pertaining to people with disabilities appeared" in the newspapers surveyed, including The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald. The researchers found no news relating to people with disabilities on the front page; the few event-based reports in which they were mentioned appeared on pages four to 12.

Another cause of concern is the fact that when the media do go beyond routine coverage of events, they tend to focus on individuals who are physically or mentally challenged and to portray them as either heroes or victims. There is little attempt to present and analyse the situation of people with disabilities as citizens who together constitute an integral part of society, contribute to it and have a legitimate claim on its resources. The issue is also seen primarily in terms of welfare and charity, not as a question of human rights and dignity.

Tapping the potential

Yet there were hints even in some of the small, related reports that appeared in the press in the first week of December of the larger stories waiting to be done in different sections of the paper. For example, on 1 December the TOI had a brief report on page 4 headlined "IT firms asked to be disabled-friendly," quoting the officer in charge of Information Technology on the department's efforts to encourage the IT/ITES sector to employ people with disabilities. This could have triggered a more meaningful piece on the vital issue of employment, which is of great concern to the disabled, who constitute a substantial potential workforce (estimated by some at 60 million adults, more than a tenth of the total workforce). Apart from the fact that the government itself is guilty of not fulfilling its own commitments in this regard, a 1999 study by the National Centre for the Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) uncovered a dismal situation in the corporate sector, too.

According to the study, the percentages of disabled persons employed in the "Super 100" companies, the private sector as a whole, multinational companies and the public sector were 0.40 per cent, 0.28 per cent, 0.05 per cent and 0.54 per cent respectively. Of the 70 companies among the "Super 100" that responded to the survey, 20 did not employ any disabled people at all and only in 10 did disabled persons make up even one per cent of their employees. Not a single one of these companies had a workforce within which even two per cent were differently abled. These statistics can easily form the nucleus of a legitimate and interesting story for the business pages on corporate social responsibility with a difference. The few companies with affirmative action policies regarding the employment of persons with disability can also be showcased as an example to others.

Similarly, a few papers carried brief reports on 2 December on the ICSE Board's decision to allow differently abled students to use computers during the final, public examinations at the end of the 10th and 12th Standards. This positive step can lead to a larger story on educational policies and facilities for the disabled. For instance, there is no official commitment to the right of the challenged child to access the 'normal' school system. Yet the number of special schools in the country (estimated at 3000 in 1999, not counting the limited number run by non-governmental organisations) cannot possibly serve the approximately 25 million children under 18 with disabilities. Under the circumstances, how many differently abled children are deprived of education, how do they spend their childhood and what are their future prospects? What is more, what are the implications for the country and society of this non-development of valuable human resources?

Almost lost in the midst of Hollywood and Bollywood stars on the back page of the AA on 6 December was an intriguing report on the incorporation by over 150 movie theatres in the United States of special systems to help the deaf or hard of hearing, as well as the blind or visually impaired, access entertainment. While most of them have reportedly done so voluntarily, official pressure is also apparently mounting on theatre chains to spread the technology farther or face discrimination lawsuits. A follow-up story on the situation in cinema-obsessed India, which boasts the most productive film industry in the world, can surely find a place on the innumerable pages devoted to entertainment in the press these days? And that, in turn, can be followed up with a piece on the need to make television - around which life seems to revolve in many homes -- accessible to people with auditory or visual impairment.

How many differently abled children are deprived of education, how do they spend their childhood and what are their future prospects? What is more, what are the implications for the country and society of this non-development of valuable human resources?
Then there is the role of the media as a source of information. According to a 1999 Government of India report, only two per cent of the disabled are reached by the limited government services that do exist. If the overwhelming majority does not access available services, at least part of the reason must be lack of information. At another level, if prevention and early detection are important components of the medical approach to disabilities followed in India, information is critical to limit or contain problems such as blindness, deafness and neurological disabilities. In addition, information can help create public awareness about disabilities and dispel myths and misconceptions leading to stigma, isolation, marginalisation and ostracism.

The success of the few media experiments in providing access to information and entertainment to the differently abled, while at the same time advocating their rights, suggests that such ventures are worth emulating. For example, a pioneering radio programme called Thiramayin Dhisaiyil (In the Direction of Abilities), produced by Ability Foundation in association with All India Radio, Chennai, was launched in July 2002 and is broadcast one morning a week in Chennai as well as other cities of Tamilnadu (it is made available across the country on shortwave). The programme, exploring disability-related issues and disseminating relevant information to persons with disability as well as their families, draws the participation of a wide range of people, and has become quite popular.

The possibilities are endless. The question is whether or not the media are able and willing.