India: Disability and Exchange Profile
Disability resources and exchange opportunities in India.
It is said that if you can travel in India, you can travel anywhere. Despite its challenges to travelers with and without disabilities, India has unique rewards for the persistent, patient traveler—from jungles and Hindu temples in the South to the Himalayas and Buddhist monasteries in the North.
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For Americans with disabilities who are accustomed to being independent and doing things for themselves, traveling in India may require a major shift in perspective. In most of Asia, interdependence is more valued than independence. It is common for people to rely on each other and to have little notion of privacy. Even more importantly, many travelers with disabilities in India may have to rely on others, possibly even strangers, for assistance. This is often the case for travelers without disabilities as well. Be patient and flexible, and keep an open mind.
"In India, I observed how people deal with poverty and adversity and am attempting to incorporate my findings into conquering my own personal struggles." -Christena Weatherspoon, a Gilman scholar with social anxiety who studied in Bangalore, India. Read more from Christena Weatherspoon.
Traditionally, disability has been considered a karmic curse in India. In other words, it is a punishment from the gods resulting from the past misdeeds of family members or people with disabilities. As a result, attitudes towards disability are often negative. The idea of “karma” is a tenet of both the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, which are two of the predominant religions in India, and as a result, these perceptions are prevalent.
The caste system, where people are divided into different social classes based on the circumstances of their birth, is also widespread in India. People with disabilities are often considered “Untouchables,” particularly in more traditional and religiously conservative areas. (In some areas, all non-Hindus may be considered “untouchable” as well.) People with disabilities are often not allowed to enter the homes of or come in contact with individuals of a higher caste.
The Persons of Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995 technically mandates full equality and participation in society for people with disabilities. However, the Act is rarely enforced. In addition, many Indian people with disabilities are unaware of their legal rights. This is slowly beginning to change as people with disabilities become more aware of their rights and disability organizations become more active, but discrimination against people with disabilities is common.
DREDF Country Laws Index - Factsheets on disability-related laws in India and other countries.
Office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities in India - Learn about the Office and access important notifications about disability-related legislation.
In general, India is not an accessible country by U.S. standards. However, it is important to remember that an estimated 40-80 million people with disabilities are living and managing in India despite the lack of accessibility. In addition, some transportation and tourist sites are becoming more accessible.
Travelers with mobility disabilities may need to get creative and be willing to ask for assistance. Sometimes local residents may take it upon themselves to offer assistance, even if unsolicited. For example, passers-by will usually carry someone in a wheelchair up a flight of stairs, over a curb without accessible cutouts, or onto a bus or train.
Svayam - Performs accessibility audits of popular sites in India.
Air Travel Access
The Ministry of Civil Aviation in India established a committee on the “Rights of Passengers with Disabilities and Reduced Mobility” to review the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in air travel and provide recommendations to make air travel more accessible. The Committee will review issues beginning with the booking of tickets; arrival at the airport; checking-in, issues related to location and design of facilities like toilets, wheelchair access, check-in counters; issues at security-checks; boarding of aircraft, seating in aircraft, disembarking, and the collection of luggage. Click here for more Air Travel information.
The easiest option for wheelchair users is to consider renting a vehicle with a driver. Occasionally, accessible cars or vans may be available, such as in cities like Mumbai and Pune. In the absence of accessible vehicles, larger four wheel drive vehicles such as the Tata are recommended. The recently constructed Delhi metro system was designed to be accessible to those with physical disabilities, although audits by disabled people's organizations have found flaws.
Hiring a personal assistant to help with getting around can also be budget-friendly. Informal arrangements with guides or porters can be made, often for less than ten dollars per day, though these guides will not have the same expertise as an experienced personal assistant.
Tip: World traveler Megan Smith was able to have her foldable power wheelchair tied to the back of a tuk tuk, though a transfer was necessary for her to get into the tuk tuk’s seat.
The most common form of taxi in India is a “tuk tuk,” or “rickshaw,” a small three-wheeled motorized vehicle that lacks accessible features. There are also car taxis in larger cities, but these lack accessibility as well, though they may be able to hold a folding wheelchair. Tuk tuks can be a cheap, convenient way to get around for those who experience fatigue or use canes.
There are few sidewalks in India, and roads tend to be congested with vehicles and pedestrians. Surfaces are often in poor shape, with potholes, rubble and other obstructions. Sidewalks sometimes have high curbs and do not include curb cuts. There is often an open sewer between the sidewalk and the road. Pedestrians use concrete planks to cross the sewer, and some wheelchair users have reported that these planks can provide accessibility between the road and sidewalk. Traffic operates by the notion that “bigger goes first,” and India leads the world in traffic-related deaths, so it is important not to assume that traffic will yield or stop for people with disabilities or anyone else.
Attractions and sites such as temples are often not accessible, though some sites may include makeshift ramps. Wheelchairs are not always allowed in temples because the wheel tread is considered unclean, similar to shoes, which usually must be left outside the temple. Some sites, like the Taj Mahal, which has nine wheelchair ramps, are more accessible than others.
Mobility during a monsoon can be particularly difficult for all travelers, especially after heavy rainstorms when sewers back up and streets flood. Consider arranging travel during the dry season, which varies depending on location, and keep up to date on the weather forecast during the monsoon.
India has one of the world’s most extensive railway systems, and trains can be an excellent low-cost option for getting across the country. Trains and train stations are often not accessible, but with creative arrangements, wheelchair users and others with mobility-related disabilities can find ways to use them.
Most train stations have ramps for baggage which can be used to get into the station or to transfer between platforms. Keep in mind that these ramps are low-tech and are intended primarily for luggage, though they can also work for wheelchair users. They are narrow but wide enough for a foldable power wheelchair. Lifts are rarely available and tend to be broken.
When purchasing a train ticket, people with mobility disabilities should ask for assistance at the ticket counter. Each station has a person in charge of assisting people with disabilities, usually a station master. Station masters are in charge of providing temporary accessibility such as luggage ramps. The passenger with a disability may be seated towards the front of the train so that the conductor can be available for assistance. The passenger should notify the conductor of his or her stop.
Train entryways generally have two to three steps separating them from the platform. These entryways are too narrow for power wheelchairs but can work for many manual wheel chairs. Since these entries don’t have ramps, accessibility is only available with assistance from others such as porters and fellow passengers.
Longer trains have “disabled” cars with larger, more accessible bathrooms, but these cars aren’t recommended for extended trips because of their hard wooden seats and lack of sleeping options. Sleeper cars are much more comfortable but do not have accessible bathrooms. Consider bringing a travel urinal or portable commode.
After boarding the train, passengers with disabilities should be proactive and persistent about making sure that the conductor and fellow passengers remember when they need to get off the train.
Unfortunately, the majority of people with disabilities in India have little access to education. The Persons of Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995 mandates free education for people with disabilities up until the age of 18, and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All Movement) is intended to make elementary education available to all, including children with disabilities. However, due to poor enforcement, lack of resources, and lack of awareness on the part of officials and families, many children with disabilities still do not have the opportunity to attend school.
The Persons of Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995 mandates a 3% reservation of university spots for people with disabilities, although one research study showed that the actual percentage is much lower. In addition, many of these students were not supplied with accommodations. Learn more about this study.
There are a few bright spots, however. For example, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is committed to accessibility to students with disabilities. Learn about JNU's services and supports to students with disabilities.
One university, Jagadguru Rambhadracharya Handicapped University, enrolls students with disabilities exclusively. Read accessibility audits of Delhi University colleges, conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in India.
In January 2012, the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) launched the "Online Braille Library" in Bandra, India. With over 12,000 titles in 14 different languages, it provides students with materials from numerous colleges across India, in Braille as well as audio at no cost. Read more at Sound Sense - Indian Express.
Disability organizations have inside information regarding general accessibility, laws, and in-country contacts that can enhance your experience abroad.
MIUSA's Disability Organizations database - A comprehensive list of disability organizations working in India.
NCDE Links - Look up Indian contacts for a specific disability or general resources on accessible travel, disability, and exchange
The Disability India Network - Extensive resources on disability. Includes a searchable database that lists disability organizations.
Deaf Community - India - Shares demographics on Deafness in India, Deaf Culture, publications, sign language, and more.
Discovering Deaf Worlds - Lists Deaf schools and organizations in India and posts newsletter articles on DDW's visits to India.
Bringing Service Animals
India, despite having an estimated 14 million blind people, makes little use of service animals, instead relying on family members for assistance. Guide dogs are slowly becoming an option, but Indian society has not yet adapted to their presence.
For requirements on importing pets (including service animals) to India, check the Embassy of India's requirements. In India, street dogs are common and can be territorial or travel in packs, a potential issue for service dogs. For more information about baggage rules, click here.
Bringing or Accessing Medication
When traveling with prescription medications, it is a good idea to include the original packaging and a typed prescription letter from your doctor on his or her letterhead. Travelers with documented prescriptions should be able to clear customs.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that travelers get vaccinations and take malaria prophylaxis in areas where malaria is prevalent. For more details, check the CDC's Health Information for Travelers to India.
For details on medical facilities and care in India, check the U.S. State Department's India country specific information page.
People with disabilities who are interested in opportunities to volunteer, study, intern or participate in other international programs in India are encouraged to contact the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) for further information.
Exchange Opportunities Links
Passport to India - A U.S. Department of State-driven initiative to increase opportunities for Americans to study abroad and service learning internships in India.
Funded Programs and Scholarships to India
Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad
The Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, offers American high school students and recent graduates in the U.S. full scholarships for up to one academic year to live and study abroad in countries with significant Muslim populations, including India. Scholarships cover expenses for program fees, pre-departure and arrival orientations in Washington DC, secondary health insurance, and host family placement.
The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program
The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program offers grants for U.S. citizen undergraduate students of limited financial means to pursue academic studies abroad in non-traditional study abroad destinations. Students who receive the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study abroad are then eligible to receive an additional grant to study Hindi, Urdu, Nepali, Sinhala, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Sindhi or other Critical Need Language.
Critical Language Scholarship Program
Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) institutes provide fully-funded group-based intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences for seven to ten weeks for U.S. citizen undergraduate, Master’s and Ph.D. students. Target languages include Hindi, Punjabi, and more. Countries may include India or others where the target languages are spoken.
Boren Awards for International Study
Boren Scholarships and Fellowships provide unique funding opportunities for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to add an important international and language component to their educations. U.S. citizens may apply the Scholarship or Fellowship towards an overseas program in India or other countries outside of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Fulbright Awards to India
India is the largest Fulbright program for American scholars and professionals. India offers grants for teaching, research, and professional development. Awards may be in any academic, artistic or professional field, and range in duration from 4 to 9 months. Teaching is in English, and at the undergraduate or graduate level. U.S. scholars and professionals in all academic fields are encouraged apply.
Although efforts have been made to ensure accuracy, MIUSA/NCDE cannot be held liable for inaccuracy, misinterpretation or complaints arising from these listings. Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by MIUSA/NCDE. Please advise NCDE of any inaccuracies you may find.
Some of the travel suggestions on this page have been provided by Hideto "Kiji" Kijima, a Japanese wheelchair user who has traveled to more than one hundred countries, including India, and by Megan Smith, an American power wheelchair user who has traveled extensively.