When Systems Are Designed For The Many, Not The Few

Episode 5 - Article 3

What does a government owe its citizens?

As Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the US think tank New America, points out, one answer to this question can be found in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. She quotes the philosopher as arguing that a welfare state is a “provider of goods and services that individuals cannot provide individually for themselves”. India’s constitution — as decreed in part IV, by the Directive Principles – clearly states that the country should be that provider of goods and services for all of its diverse citizenry.  But for many citizens, this is not the case.

We spoke to John, 38, a teacher in a residential school for blind children in Bengaluru. In India, the process of registering as blind also requires you to go through the separate process of registering as disabled. Plus, enrolling in those identity systems isn’t simple or smooth. John tells us that renewing his disability card took many different steps:

“In Bengaluru, you have to go to Minto hospital, in Chamrajpet Market. You get the blind certificate from there. For the disabled ID card, you have to go to Victoria hospital and do it there.

To get a disabled ID card is a big process.

You have to go to both Minto and Victoria maybe three or six times.

For the children who are admitted in our school, after that they have to go to the Women & Child Welfare Department and then get it signed by our director.”

Not only has John already been through this bureaucratic process many times, he’s had to experience it again while applying for Aadhaar. John registered for an Aadhaar card because he heard it would make his life easier, and that he would be able to collect additional disability benefits easily. In the end, it took him two years, and on multiple occasions he had to trade off the opportunity cost with the financial cost:


“I had to go three or four times [to get an Aadhaar card]. I hailed an auto for getting ID cards. It took three days, one day after the other … Sometimes it was a rush. Sometimes when I went, the server wasn’t there. It’s expensive.”


John also says that the people who design these systems could be more sensitive to the needs of people like him. Apart from his ATM card, where the numbers are raised, identity cards do not typically have features for Braille users. The application process also largely ignores Braille users; there were no forms in Braille, and no one was assigned with helping people like him at the Aadhaar application office.

He said that the people at the bank didn’t particularly consider his needs when he applied for an ATM card either, and suggested that uniformity was something processes and machines that accept such cards should consider. Some ATM machines have screen-reading software for blind people, he says, “but not all”. At the moment he also has to depend on other people to withdraw money:

“I get the message on my mobile when money is credited. To then withdraw the money is a very big challenge. I have to take somebody with me to the bank or ask someone else to fill up the challan [bank receipt] or the withdrawal form.  If I go to an ATM, I always need assistance. I depend on my friends or my wife for help.”


Not all identity systems ignore disabled users, however. While speaking about his experience applying for a ration card in 2014, he noted that he didn’t have to wait in line like the others, and had his application forms filled by office staff: “I didn’t have to do anything. They did everything.”

Overall, John’s experience with different forms of identity systems reveal that most have a long way to go to become truly inclusive. They do not make life easy for disabled people, and, indeed, often make their lives more complicated.