Power and compassion – these two words can sum up the focus behind Javed Abidi’s mission. As an impassioned advocate for India’s disabled citizens, he has given voice to an ‘invisible minority‘ – one that has been denied to them by both political and social sectors for decades. It is a subject that he understands firsthand, having been confined to a wheelchair since he was 10 years old. Born with severe sclerosis of the spine, doctors informed his parents that their infant son would not likely survive. They named him Javed, meaning immortal, and it is name that will likely prove surprisingly prescient as his dedication to this population will influence – and improve – the lives of millions for generations to come.
As a child, Abidi traveled with his father to the U.S. to receive medical treatment and was inspired by the atmosphere of empathy and respect extended to disabled persons in this country. He began his crusade as an ‘ambassador for disability’ during high school and continued his efforts into college at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. While working towards a degree in journalism, Abidi remained actively involved in the school’s disability programs – a service that would later prove useful in his professional career as an advocate. Following graduation, Abidi would return home – only to find that most newspaper editors were unwilling to employ him as a political reporter due to his disability. Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that prohibits the discrimination of any job candidate based on mental or physical disability, India’s government had yet to pass any similar legislation – effectively ignoring the needs of more than 60 million of the country’s citizens.
Although he would build a successful career as a freelance political journalist, he was approached in 1993 by Sonia Gandhi to head the disabilities unit of the newly established Rajeev Gandhi Foundation, named for her deceased husband, the former Indian Prime Minister. Having little experience in the development of such an entity, he nonetheless built the department from the ground up to give aide and support to disabled persons through legislative lobbying efforts and partnerships with some of the country’s largest corporations. Believing that a united voice could not be ignored, Abidi traveled throughout the country speaking with various disabled groups and creating programs to teach professional skills to the disabled, the majority of whom had never had the opportunity to attend college.
His efforts and determination would result in his crucial role in the passing of India’s Disability Act of 1995, giving legal protection and support to the disabled. Prior to the Act, disabled citizens – a population Abidi has referred to as India’s ‘invisible minority’ – had no legal recourse to demand significant, lasting changes from both the public and private sectors. Among other social protections, the Act provides economic incentives for businesses that hire disabled employees, and allows funding for improved accessibility to public buildings and institutions.
Abidi has since established the National Center for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, which has been instrumental in the creation of a country-wide database to unite employers with disabled workers. And he continues his efforts to inspire those with mental or physical disabilities to act as their own advocates in their struggle to gain the rights that most citizens take for granted. The right to work, to travel, to visit a movie theater or a public pool. It is a struggle that is not yet completed, but for the fierce determination of one man, it is one that is well begun.