“Dear Mrs Gandhi, I am Abdullah. I am living with schizophrenia for 10 years. I am homeless. I work as a grocery shop assistant for 7 years in Khidderpore.”

“Dear Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, My name is Nihal Khan. I am the owner of a grocery store in Khidderpore. I have employed a homeless person suffering from schizophrenia for the last 7 years. He works as my shop assistant. He is a hard sincere worker.”

These are some of the messages that the Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi has been getting over the past couple of days. People with mental illnesses – university professors, daily wage labourers, security guards and shop assistants – have been getting themselves photographed holding placards showing how they work despite their disabilities and sending it in to a social media campaign called We Can Work.

The campaign was triggered by a PTI news report about a Group of Ministers meeting on the proposed Disability Bill that quoted Gandhi as saying “It [the bill] does not differentiate between mentally ill and mentally disabled person. But there is a difference between the two. If a person is mentally ill like schizophrenic, how can he be given a job?"

The campaign, which has gone viral, has served to highlight a core but ignored issue when it comes to mental illness – that there are people with mental disabilities living and working within communities with understanding and accommodation and that is what they want to do.

The minister has now denied making the comment and the Ministry of Women and Child Development has tweeted that the minister’s comments after the meeting were misinterpreted.

In an email to disability activists, Gandhi said, “What I suggested at a closed door meeting of the ministries was that, instead of a gross mix-up of physically disabled, mentally ill, mentally challenged and diseased – all being lumped under the same category for the 3% reservation, we refine the list so that everyone knows the category in which they can get pensions/jobs.” She also clarified she asked that the different forms of mental illness be graded to see which categories were employable and who would be eligible for pension.

Gandhi’s letter has done little to alleviate activists’ concern about the fate of the Disability Bill. “She said that all this discussion was for 3% reservation in government jobs,” said Amba Salelkar of Equals – Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, the organisation that started the We Can Work campaign and maintains it on Tumblr. "The Bill actually proposes 5% reservation. So why is she saying 3% now?"

Said Vikram Patel, mental health expert and co-director at the Centre for Control of Chronic Conditions at the Public Health Foundation of India, who specifically rejected the idea that people with schizophrenia may be unemployable, "The question of whether or not the person is employable is an absurd one because it is the state's duty to ensure that the person is employed."

Long road to disability rights

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill when drafted in 2014 was a long overdue but progressive bill. There was no national policy on disabilities till the 1990s. When the Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in 1995 it recognised seven types of disabilities including mental retardation and mental illness and distinguished between the two. But the 1995 Act failed to spell out the protections needed for the mentally retarded and the mentally ill.

Among the many changes that the new draft bill proposes to make to the existing law on disability, which was passed in 1995, were an expansion of the list of disabilities from seven to 19 and an increase in job reservation for persons with disabilities from 3% to 5%.

But news from the meeting of the Group of Ministers has got activists concerned that the draft will be diluted. Javed Abidi, convener of the Disabled Rights Group and one of the key people behind the bill, is worried that the proposed list of 19 disabilities will be cut to exclude or club conditions like hemophilia, thalassemia, sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. There are also signs that the ministers consider mental illness to be a disease and not a disability and so should be left to the Ministry of Health’s ambit.

Of definitions and discrimination

“It is this classic debate of disability when it is physical versus disability when it is invisible,” said Abidi. “What we had explained in the debates earlier when the law was being drafted in 2013-'14 was that all people with these disabilities need protection against discrimination.”

Abidi also reiterated that mental illness is considered a disability worldwide, so much so that the accepted term to describe the set of ailments is “psycho-social disabilities”.

“If there is no sufficient outcry and the GoM doesn’t relent, then it will be a huge loss which will take the disability movement to the pre-'95 age,” said Abidi.

For Patel, the question of including the whole range of mental illness as disabilities is complicated. "If we see stigma as a form of disability, which I think it is, then you could argue that all mental illness is accompanied by a social disadvantage," he said. "The problem is in implementing a policy where a person with a short-term mental illness like depression can recover ; does that mean he will have the same rights as a person with a long-term illness? If I have a short-term depressive episode, does that mean I have a lifetime right to inclusive employment? Am I eligible for a lifetime bus pass?"

These questions were limited to the community of doctors, health workers and disability activists till the news report of Maneka Gandhi's comment. In fact, Gandhi herself expressed surprise that an issue on a point in the disabilities bill got so much publicity and said as much in her letter. “ I did not contradict it [the PTI story] because I thought it would go away. But apparently it has just gained steam.”

But Salelkar was not satisfied. “The fact that the minister could say something like this and didn’t think it needed to be clarified till a whole hashtag campaign went viral shows that most people also think that it is ok,” she said. The silver lining to the debacle has clearly been the attention that the We Can Work tumblr has brought to the issue of living with mental disability.

"A lot of organisations in community mental health wrote saying they are supporting the campaign," Salelkar said. "These organisations going out and getting these amazing photos with such powerful messages and people looking at these photos and saying ‘wow, we didn’t know there are people like this who live with mental illnesses', has really gone beyond the original purpose of the campaign and that's why we will keep it alive for as long as it needs to.”

Here are more pictures from the campaign.