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Commemorating International Day of Persons with Disabilities

An interview with Amba Salelkar, a young lawyer and disability activist based in Chennai, India

By Terry Mutuku, Communications Officer, World Blind Union

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work? 
A: I am a law graduate. I worked in criminal trial litigation in Mumbai here in India.  I later moved on to Chennai, to take up another job with the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy. Currently, I am working for Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice where me and my colleagues focus on bridging the gap between disability movement and evidence law, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Amba Salelkar, lawyer and disability activist
Amba Salelkar, lawyer and disability activist

Q: Would you like to tell us about your disability? 
A:  I have been living with mental health impairments since I was 20 years old. It is a combination of depression, panic attacks and anxiety. I had a particularly severe crisis in 2012 following an altercation with a judge in court. Because of that, I faced a lot of stigma and negative attitude. I couldn’t go back to work. I had to take time off to recover as well.

When I was recovering, I started looking for some research work to do. I was put in touch with Rahul Cherian, a Lawyer and disability policy maker, founder of Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy who had done a lot of work on the rights of the visually impaired around intellectual property rights and the “right to read”. He had also participated in the negotiations around the Marrakesh treaty. At that time he was looking for a research assistant for the parallel reporting process. It was a coincidence that he asked me to look at the Mental Health Law, he had no idea of my condition. That was the first time I read the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I learnt a lot; about reasonable accommodation, accessibility, inclusiveness, participating on equal basis, etc. It all made a lot of sense to me. This helped me through my recovery process. 

He then offered me a job at the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy, where I worked for two years, though he suddenly passed away a year after I started working with him. 

Working in the disability sector as a person with disability is very interesting. I use my own experience to reach out and help others in advocating for their rights.

Q: This year's theme for international day of people with disabilities is "Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness". What is the significance of this theme?
A: I think that the theme is all about awareness of disability rights among the disabled and the able bodied as well. Everybody needs support regardless of whether you have a disability or not. The theme also encourages inclusiveness, the idea that disability is part of human diversity. We need to take steps to ensure people with disabilities are included in development agendas. We need to promote inclusiveness and equality. We are looking for an inclusive society for everyone. We need to talk about inclusiveness and equality as a basic human right. It is important to recognise specific rights about people with disabilities.

Q: What have been some of the key challenges you’ve faced and the lessons you have learnt with regard to promoting the inclusion and equality of persons with disabilities? 
A: I have had to learn a lot about my own understanding of what reasonable accommodation and accessibility means for me. I am from upper middle-class family with some privileges, and because my impairment manifested itself when I was already in law school my experience is quite different. This is something as an activist I have to be aware of because my experience is not as of others who may not be privileged. Some people don’t believe my disability experience, because I am perceived to be privileged. Senior activists have accused me of ‘faking’ my disability, because it is an invisible condition. It can be emotionally draining.  So self care is something I prioritize.  

Addressing the inclusion of people with disabilities within the global development agenda is crucial. We in the disability movement, and especially women with disabilities, should be able to articulate our issues, and be heard. We need to do something and do something fast and inclusively so that "no one is left behind".  

Q: With regard to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) What do you think has been one of the greatest milestones in the disability rights movement especially in India?
A: Signing of CRPD was a milestone in itself. In 2016, a new legislation on rights of persons with disabilities was passed by parliament and in 2017 the mental health care act was passed as well. This is part of the CRPD implementation process as the country prepares for review by CRPD committee in 2019. These are small but significant milestones, in implementing the CRPD to bring about changes.  The CRPD is gaining traction, but there's more to be done to eliminate discrimination.

Q: What would you like to see in the future with regards to disability rights?
A: I would like to see more involvement of marginalised groups such as the deafblind and people with learning disabilities. We need empowerment of leaders from these groups, especially women. We also need to look at disability issues as intersectional issues that touch on other basic human rights such as accessibility.

Q: What helps you to achieve success as a lawyer?
A: I enjoy doing what I love, and this is a motivation in itself. Through the disability movement I have met so many people, and shared experiences and learnings. It is so much fun learning and sharing with others.  I always learn something new from each encounter. 

Q: Can you tell us about your future goals?
A:  I am monitoring and looking at how disability laws are going to unfold in India. We in the disability movement will monitor and use whatever tools we have to demand accountability. We want to develop simple, universal tools that everyone can use so that we are not missing out on voices from the marginalised. We want to use good practices from other parts to reach out to rural groups. I look forward to this personally.

Also, I just finished a training of trainers on disability rights which I hope to take forward especially with women with disabilities from the global south. 

Q: What advice can you give to other women who are living with disabilities? 
A: For me, independence does not mean you don’t need support. It doesn’t mean you are not a strong or complete person. Everyone needs support. Women with disabilities should understand that support is a basic human right, and we should have a say about the kind of support or quality of support we need. We need to embrace who we are, our identity and demand our rights.