The occasion was 10 years of democracy. The theme of the forum, Democracy- A path to good governance, was pertinent. Panelists were eminent members from different fields.
But at the democracy forum organised by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy and Royal University of Bhutan on Tuesday, two students of the Wangsel Institute for the Deaf left many thinking – more than the prepared presentation on democracy or good governance.
The students through sign language questioned the panel comprising politicians, members of parliament, local leaders and a journalist among others, what is being done to include them.
The message was powerful. Without the ability to hear, listen to political debates, dialogues and discourse, they felt excluded. They were wondering why there is no means to explain the political discourse in sign languages so that they can be a part of the great transition. So that they can make informed decision before they go to the polls.
They also questioned why the media is not considerate of those with disabilities. There were no answers. The question was unexpected and both presenters and the audience was caught off-guard. All they could muster was that the issue was important and that has to be looked into.
The message was conveyed through signs. The organisers, at least, brought an interpreter, which to some audience was a first-time experience.
The concern expressed was loud. If it will be forgotten after the event is yet to be seen, but we cannot forget the innocent faces expressing a genuine concern.
In numbers, there are not many. Only 3,650 people have difficulty in hearing and 1,344 of the total population are deaf going by the 2017 population and housing census report.
But we have a policy of inclusiveness, one that aims at leaving no one behind. 1,344 is a lot, even if half of them are eligible voters.
There were suggestions of the need for sign language interpreters at the parliament and with the national TV to interpret the proceedings and news. These are immediate and doable solutions. What we need is the will to do.
The need to recognise disabled Bhutanese people was long recognised. Not much has improved. Our towns and cities have developed and grown. But they are not at all disabled-friendly. The lack of infrastructure like ramps confines and make disabled people more dependent. Technology is easing dependence of all kinds of disabilities, but it has to be followed with special facilities.
We have tall buildings with rules mandating elevators. What we see is only provisions, to be turned into commercial spaces. Government offices, dzongs and parliament buildings, where decision affecting the disabled people are made, are not accessible to them. We sympathise with them, but often forget to empathise.
If people with disabilities can take part in the discourse of building an inclusive society, it would help decision makers recognise their problems and make them live better lives.