On the last day for exchanging old currency notes, 30th December, I went to the JNU branch of the State Bank of India to withdraw cash. As a differently-abled person, I knew there are separate queues for persons with disabilities as per the directive of the government. Keeping this in mind, I went straight to the cashier's counter.
However, people standing there in the general queue started asking me to get in line, to which I replied that I am a differently-abled person and therefore entitled to stand in a separate line. I went to the cashier and said the same thing, before giving him a cheque to withdraw ₹20,000. To which the cashier said, "Today the withdrawal limit is ₹10,000 only because of lack of adequate cash." This was an eye-opener to me. It falsified all the tall claims of the government that adequate cash is available in the banks.
The cashier told me that because I didn't look "disabled enough" to him, not even a medical certificate would make him change his mind.
The second thing which the cashier said to me was quite intriguing and shocking. He said, "You don't look like a person with disability to me—you should get a token and stand in the general queue." This was quite an absurd remark and showed the mentality of people in general towards persons with disabilities. I told the cashier that I could show him my disability certificate if he wanted to confirm. He replied that because I didn't look "disabled enough" to him, not even a medical certificate would make him change his mind. Here a bank cashier was trying to be a competent authority on who to consider differently-abled and who not.
When the government of India released the notification for separate queues for persons with disabilities, did it leave the matter to the judgement of bank employees? Were they entrusted to ascertain whether someone was disabled or not? And all this was happening in the JNU SBI Branch, where one would think that the level of sensitivity towards differently-abled people would be much higher than in other places (the JNU campus is better geared than others to cater for differently abled students in terms of access, accommodation, sensitivity and respect). One can only wonder what must be happening in the rural heartland of India where both awareness and sensitivity towards the disabled are relatively low.
I realised that Indian society sees "disability" as a homogeneous concept, when in reality there are multiple levels of disability. People in general, only recognise persons with disability as those on wheelchairs or walking with a blind cane. Because of this myopic understanding of disability, people generally dislike any special provisions for those differently abled persons, who in their eyes are not "disabled enough" to get a special treatment.
What happened after that was even more disappointing. After I refused to stand in the general queue, the cashier said that I should go and take a senior citizen token. This was quite baffling. I asked why I should do such a thing when I was clearly not a senior citizen. To this came the reply that there are "no separate tokens for persons with disabilities." Only two kinds of token have been released, I was informed—one under the "general category" and the other for senior citizens. When I asked why there are no separate tokens for persons with disabilities, he was visibly irritated but then replied, "There are not very many people with disabilities so they have been clubbed together with senior citizens."
After I refused to stand in the general queue, the cashier said that I should go and take a senior citizen token. This was quite baffling.
This response is quite unsatisfactory. It shows just how much priority is being given to persons with disabilities, where they are clubbed with an entirely different category, just because they are smaller in number. Why couldn't they come up with separate tokens for differently-abled people? Is it such a big administrative and technical task? Or does it merely reflect the extremely low priority given by the authorities to the 80 million-strong disabled population of this country?
Here I must also note the insensitive attitude of people in general when they see any differently-abled person trying to avail of their officially sanctioned "privileges". They way they address persons with disability is just inappropriate and insensitive, with words such as "langa", "andha" and "loola" being used freely. It's the norm in India to speak so contemptuously of the disabled and it was in evidence that day at the bank too. All the accessible India campaigns, disability laws and provisions can't do much until society as a whole does not start giving due respect to a person with disability, and stops "othering" them from the mainstream.
This othering is the root of the problem, and it leaked into the whole demonetisation process as well, making the experience more unpleasant and difficult than it should have been.