August 19, 2011
Bar & Bench spoke to one of the leading Disability Rights Activist, Subhash Vashisth, who is a Delhi based lawyer. He is a Consultant at the All India Confederation of the Blind (AICB) and has founded the Dooars Institute of Disabled at Jaigaon, Jalpaiguri. His passion and compassion for the protection of the rights of the disabled people is reflected in the following words, which he has shared with us, in the due course of the interview: “Persons with disabilities are persons first and deserve an equal respect and acceptance from their fellow beings and opportunities in life. We need to break the myth and misperception that persons with disabilities lack capacity. A person with disability can excel like anyone else if given an enabling environment and there are several examples to prove this. God has been very kind to us that as lawyers, we can do our bit for the cause of disability rights. Let us not lose on this opportunity!”
With such burning determination in his gut, Vashisth tells that his main motivation to work for the cause of the disabled was his own younger sister, who had acquired hearing impairment at a very early age, and right through his childhood, he had grown up as a guardian to his sister. He said that right from accessing to quality education, to gaining stable employment were full of barriers and it was then that he realized the innumerable shortcomings in the system. Quipping that his family has always been supportive of his various endeavours in the field of disability rights, he said that the major hurdles he is being faced in carrying on with his agenda is an utter lack of awareness, even among lawyers, about not only the rights of the disabled, but also regarding their capabilities as human beings. On being asked as to how the AICB is making lasting impact on the society, he highlighted that his role in the organization has been limited to the advocacy work for the rights of persons with vision impairment to facilitate redressal of their grievances and injustices and securing their rights through use of advocacy tools including judicial interventions. He says that he saw a tremendous faith that is reposed by the blind persons and their family members in the leadership of AICB.
Vashisth also expressed his faith in the organization saying that, in association with its affiliates and other national organizations, it is bound to reach every last blind person in the country to empower him to unlock his potential. Speaking about the needs of the persons with disabilities, he said that they have no ‘special’ needs as such and their needs are as normal as of their non-disabled counterparts. Hence tagging their needs as ‘special’ would be wrong. Also, he expressed disgust on the prejudices and misconceptions prevailing in the society about the abilities of the disabled. He averred that these mental blocks are the biggest impediments to the process of unfolding the immense capacity of the persons with disabilities – and particularly the persons with vision impairment – to be able to contribute to the national development. He said that the first step in this regards should be to acknowledge their abilities and to give them a nourishing and an enabling environment so that they can realize their full potential. When asked about the hurdles faced by him in setting up the Dooars Institute of Disabled in Jaigaon, he said that at the time when he established this organization, he was serving the Indian Air Force. Seeing that a few hearing impaired children were begging and were being mistreated, he took the initiative of doing something for the children, spoke to his colleague Ram Prakash Mishra, approached the parents of the children and finally founded the organization in 1998-99. As security issues did not permit people working for Air Force to mingle with the residents of the hamlet, he and his colleague bid adieu to their government job and decided to give their full time commitment to the project.
They were also faced with language problems which was soon overcome by the help of the local volunteers. Then he spoke of the financial hurdles, the governmental apathy and bureaucracy in helping them with the funds. But then, they found respite in the local donors and volunteer special educators, who really did help them leverage their potentials. Speaking at length about the Persons with Disabilities Act and the governmental interventions in dealing with the issue, he said that the Act and various other laws like CPC, CrPC, etc., need serious modifications, so that they are on the same page with the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He emphasized the need of a rights-based approach rather than the welfare-based approach, in dealing with the persons with disabilities. He also highlighted the dismal amount of pensions and allowances being given to the disabled, when the fact is that the living expenses of the disabled are more than that of their non-disabled counterparts. The situation that many of the disabled do not even possess the disability certificate, which serves as their basic pass to access to the various schemes, is pathetic. Speaking of the challenges in the legal front, he disregarded the sad state of affairs that disabled judges and lawyers are not being seen as competent people to be part of the Judiciary.
The Court buildings are not according to the universal designs and the Court Libraries are not disabled friendly either. Also, the disabled litigants find it very hard to afford the court fees and access justice. Speaking about the government-NGO partnerships, he said that though the synergy out of such partnerships are proving to be useful, many times the government is going apathetical, shifting burdens on the NGOs. He also highlighted the role of law firms, law students and legal educational institutions in conducting awareness programmes and campaigns to make the environment disabled-friendly. He said that amendments to the existing laws as such is not required, if the existing laws are effectively implemented in their true letter and spirit. He said that law firms have not been specifically friendly to the disabled, as the prevailing attitude is, “Why take a lawyer with disabilities and invite problems when there are so many non-disabled law graduates available for hire!” Lastly, speaking about law students, he said that though they need not fully devote themselves to the cause of human rights, they should certainly take up certain cases which need special attention, in order that they serve their society.