Disability Network is a Pune-based organisation run for persons with disabilities by persons with disabilities themselves. The organisation was founded by a cross-disability group; the "fearless four" behind the effort are are Vinay "Win" Phatak, Divyanshu Ganatra, Basant Kumar Indurkar, and Vikram Ingale.

"It was about two years ago. Divyanshu Ganatra and I would often meet at seminars and workshops that invited persons with disabilities," says Phatak. "One thing that struck us as peculiarly significant was that disabled people are not decision-makers. This was what prompted us to start something on our own and DN opened doors in April 2001. Our basic idea is to connect people and let them derive something of benefit from such networking. What we do is keep information with us and pass it on."

DN aims to increase the participation and contribution of India's millions of men, women and children with disabilities in all aspects of life. The primary idea is to create a network among people with disabilities and groups and organisations that work with and for such affected individuals, and then to let each benefit in whatever way they can. DN functions as a think tank, an information clearing-ground, and aspires to aid physically challenged people enhance their life. "Our mission is to provide information that will help persons with disabilities become independent. But we say to the physically challenged person that instead of providing you with a wheelchair, we will try and work for a policy that will guarantee some long-term improvement," avers Phatak.

In the first year of its functioning, DN held scheduled meetings and open houses, and these provided information about options for earning. The focus of DN's activities at that time was on income generation. It also set out to prove that disabled individuals can also contribute to the economy, and are not an economic 'burden on society'. Disability Network has been working with business leaders in order to help them understand how disabled persons can provide the right skill-sets to the market-place. DN takes home feedback from businesses and organises training sessions accordingly; it is hoped that corporate houses will support the empowerment of persons with disabilities because it is mutually beneficial to both the business community and the disabled community.

"Persons with disability must themselves get involved. It is sad but true that charity is often expected, and such a line of thinking must be wiped out. We are not an organisation that's into advocacy or rebelling for change. Because rules won't change the situation, especially not in a country like ours with its complex problems. Take for instance the Persons With Disabilities Act, 1995 - it is more of a statement of intent of what should be the ideal situation. Many of its clauses are not applicable to the private sector. So how does that help? However, what is worse is that many persons with disabilities themselves are not aware of the PWD Act. They have to mobilise together and form some sort of a group that will pressurise policy-making in their favour".

Vinay Phatak
Disability Network
"We want the industry to subscribe to the idea that it is ability and not disability that counts," points out Phatak. "The economy is one key player. If you can convince someone that employing a person with disability for instance will boost his profits, he is bound to take up that cause. It then becomes a symbiotic relationship. For this, networking is imperative. Within the circle of disability and outside it too. Take for example the question of accessible toilets for disabled women. Now clean public toilets for women is a grave gender issue by itself. Toilets accessible to the disabled is the next natural course of action. The moment women with disabilities join forces with women's organisations and tackle it as a gender issue, there is bound to be some improvement. Such cross-networking is the need of the hour, or else, people with disability have no choice other than being ghettoised."

Phatak adds, "We work with the blind, and deaf and dumb groups on a close level, understanding the specific problems faced by people with such disabilities, and in turn finding groups or individuals who can alleviate these problems. We also include certain mental disabilities such as schizophrenia in our scope of work, but we feel that we are not equipped to deal with mental disabilities," he clarifies.

Since networking is its raison d'être, DN's founders devote considerable time and effort in communicating with similar groups on an international level. The purpose is to find out what is happening on these issues in different places, and how ideas generated elsewhere can be of use back home. This also makes their outlook more global.

DN's latest activities focus on the subject of access - access to infrastructure, access to communication and access to information on various websites hosted on the Internet. Access, as defined by the group, is the ease with which a person with disability can move about or use something.

"Our immediate plan is to do a survey of Pune city for accessibility," says Phatak. "We intend to undertake a detailed scrutiny of the 800 kilometres of city roads to check out bus-stops that can be made more accessible to disabled persons, or then public institutions such as restaurants, banks, theatres. Volunteers will move around and rate the accessibility factor according to the norms laid down by the Commissioner for Disability, New Delhi." DN has also created an Accessibility Directory, giving persons with disabilities a detailed list of accessible institutions in their neighbourhood. In fact, it is due to the efforts of DN that a few public transport buses in the city have lowered their boarding steps by about eight inches, thus making it easier for not just disabled people, but even senior citizens, to board buses. A few bus-stops too have been modified keeping special needs in mind.

Disability Network
Navrang Apt. # 5,
120/9 Modern Colony,
Off. Paud Road,
Kothrud, Pune 411 038
Phone: 91-020-5430767
Email : disabilitynet@vsnl.net
"Next year, we are going to emphasise access to websites," explains Phatak. Visually handicapped people are the most afflicted when it comes to surfing the Net, and it is this hurdle that DN is going to tackle in the following year. "This is especially important since none of the Government of India websites are visually handicapped-friendly; this denies access to vital information to a certain section of people."

Along with all these activities, DN continues to work towards its primary objective - that of networking. The founders are convinced that availability of information is one strong means of empowerment. They also endeavour to bring about an attitudanal change towards disability - both within and outside the group. They assert that unless the disabled take the initiative of bettering their own life, they will never be able to get up and move on.