An uphill struggle for securing rights of the disabled

Akhil Paul

Being a member of the erstwhile drafting committee for the Rights of People with Disabilities Bill 2012, I can testify to its stand that ‘it cannot be made perfect as every process involves breaking something else’. That was our guiding principle while drafting the Bill — one that was been jinxed from the beginning given the ups and downs with regard to opinions about it within the sector.

Civil society — which includes the government, activists and NGOs — has once again shown its insensitivities with regard to the Rights of People with Disabilities Bill 2014. The Cabinet-approved Bill lacks on many counts, but most so on ‘non-negotiable provisions’, the reason it has invited heavy fire from various disability groups. One group is of the opinion that it is disjointed and needs serious reworking before it can be enacted. The other standpoint is that the Bill may not be perfect but at least it recognises and provides something to those people with disabilities (autism, deaf-blindness, intellectual disabilities, mental illness etc) who are not included in the 1995 Act.

It is important to highlight that while the Cabinet-approved version Bill of 2014 has changed the definition of disabilities, other provisions — which need to be incorporated in the Bill to ensure that the newly recognised persons with disabilities obtain all the entitlements (including job reservations) — have not been included. Without those provisions being included, the expanded definition is going to be of little benefit.

The needs of people with these newly recognised disabilities are very diverse and individual-specific. Hence, ‘reasonable accommodation’ would have been the tool to ensure that they get what they want. The denial of reasonable accommodation needs to be recognised as discrimination. This provision was needed because unlike accessibility, which pertains to disabled-friendly features in built environment, goods and services, transport and communication, reasonable accommodation deals with the needs of individual persons with disabilities — be it a particular kind of work, equipment, furniture or flexibility of time and workplace. Whilst the proposed Bill of 2012 had this provision as a right, the Bill of 2014 only places an obligation on the appropriate government to ensure reasonable accommodation.

The non-recognition of the right to legal capacity and reasonable accommodation in the Bill of 2014 is exacerbated by the fact that the new law does not overrule existing disqualifications in other laws. Instead, it states that the provision of the law will be in addition to and not in supersession of existing laws. This means that all the existing laws by which persons with disabilities are disqualified from exercising their rights to contract would survive. In the face of those provisions, it would be difficult for the freshly included persons with disabilities to avail their new work and livelihood entitlements.

I have come to the conclusion that the Cabinet-approved version is going to hit the newly recognised conditions of autism, deaf-blindness, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities very severely. Though they will be recognised and included in the Act, they will not have any guaranteed right to education, employment or legal capacity, and every entitlement will have to be contested in the court of law.

There are many like me in the disability sector who have started to prepare for the long haul, because with the Bill not coming through, more advocacy and campaigning will be needed. If the Bill is persisted with in its current form, we will have to work on ensuring a non-negotiable foundation. And if it is not, we will have to restart the drafting process, this time hoping for more ironclad provisions.

The author is Founder Director of Sense International (India), an organization working to support the development of sustainable services for deaf-blind people throughout the country


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