Javed Abidi, brightest crusader for disability rights, passes away


NEW DELHI — Javed Abidi, director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), and the Global Chair, Disabled People International (DPI), a world body with special consultative status to the United Nations, passed away on Sunday (March 4).

He was young at 53 and reports indicate that he succumbed to a chest infection. He is survived by his mother, a younger brother and younger sister. With his death the disability movement in India and worldwide has lost a dedicated soldier.

Abidi was the pioneer of the cross-disability movement in India having founded the Disabled Rights Group in 1993 to work specifically on cross-disability issues. He was instrumental in setting up of NCPEDP in 1996 and has been its director since 1997. He is also the convener of the National Disability Network, India.

He was India's most respected voice in the disability sector, and the only leader with undeniable global reach and clout.

As an impassioned advocate of ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’, he has given voice to an "invisible minority" — one that has been denied to them for decades, by catalyzing path-breaking changes in the policy and legislative space.

As the Global Chair of Disabled People’s International (DPI), for two terms, Abidi has successfully focused the world’s attention to needs of people with disabilities in the Global South. Under his leadership, DPI has hosted the first Global Forum on Disability, the first and only such initiative for voices so far unheard in the global disability movement.

He has also been instrumental in promoting cross-disability civil society participation from the Global South at multi-lateral platforms such as the Conference of State Parties to the CRPD, among others.

He set up the disability wing of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in India, after being invited to do so by Sonia Gandhi.

NCPEDP is a cross-disability, non-profit organization working as an interface between the government, industry, international agencies, and the voluntary sector towards empowerment of persons with disabilities.

NCPEDP advocates for the need to move away from traditionally held views of charity and welfare to those of productivity and enabling of disabled people. It has successfully advocated several policy changes that have positively impacted the lives of people with disabilities, working across to encourage employment of disabled people; increase public awareness on the issue of disability; empower disabled people with knowledge, information and opportunities; and ensure easy and convenient access to all public places, products, services and technologies.

Abidi was born in 1965 in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, and was diagnosed with spina bifida. Abidi wasn't operated on for eight years, and suffered nerve damage as a result. At the age of ten, he injured himself in a fall and required another operation. After this, his family moved to the United States and Abidi received care at the Boston Children's Hospital and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

At the age of 15 he became a wheelchair-user. Abidi, despite difficulties, studied at Wright State University, and in 1989, moved to India seeking a career in journalism. His father Late Prof S. Ishtiaque Abidi was into active politics and was a member of AICC.

In 1993, he started working for Sonia Gandhi, creating and building the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation's disabilities unit. A year later, Abidi joined a small advocate group called the Disability Rights Group and started raising awareness for the disabled people of India. A large pro-disability rights movement arose, with the goal of getting the Parliament of India to implement a bill of rights for the disabled.

Abidi led a protest before Parliament on Dec. 19, 1995. The protest pushed Parliament into passing the Persons with Disabilities Act on Dec. 22, 1995. In 2004, his letter to Chief Justice of India on making the polling booths accessible to persons with disabilities was converted into writ petition. The Supreme Court then passed direction to make electoral process accessible.

Abidi worked with business executives from IBM, Apple Inc., Oracle Corporation, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard to employ disabled individuals in these companies and high tech industry in general.

In 2000, Abidi pressured the Archaeological Survey of India to install Wheelchair Ramps at the famous monuments the Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Humayun's Tomb, and Jantar Mantar in order to accommodate Stephen Hawking on his trip to them.

For the next two years, Abidi and the NCPEDP focused on accessibility for the disabled, publication of disability issues, and work opportunities for the disabled.

He has successfully led several path-breaking advocacy initiatives in India, including the drafting and enactment of the Disability Act of 1995, inclusion of disability as a separate category in the Census, India’s ratification of CRPD in 2007, and setting up of a separate Department of Disability Affairs. Most recently, he has led the movement towards India’s new disability rights law — the Persons with Disabilities Act 2016.

He was instrumental in setting up of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in 1996 and has been its Director since 1997.

Abidi strongly believed that empowerment of persons with disabilities is connected to education, which in turn hinges on accessibility. And all three are not possible without enabling laws and policies. — SG