Monday, December 8, 2014

India must look beyond just disability laws if it wants to become an equal opportunity nation

Each law must be studied first to see how it impacts persons with disability, argues NIPUN MALHOTRA in a special feature for

It is difficult to imagine a person with disability rising very high in India the way Franklin D Roosevelt did to become president of the United States. Despite being paralysed waist down from polio, he famously guided his nation through the Great Depression and World War II. In India, persons with disability are generally uncared for, and the government makes only feeble efforts at their emancipation.
The first legislation for persons with disability was the Persons with Disability Act of 1995. Though an amateurish and toothless attempt, officially recognising only seven disabilities, it did take one big step forward: 3% reservation in all governmental institutions. It asked that every institution identify the posts to accommodate the reservation. But the authorities failed to comply, countering that the posts could not be offered because they were not identified. This, until a bench of the Supreme Court stated that the “identification of the posts is not a precondition for reservation”.
The next step in disability legislation was the Persons with Disability Bill 2012. Still waiting to be tabled in Parliament, this too is far from perfect. It does not deliver on the promises made when India became a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Signatory. Still, at least it recognises 19 disabilities, while making both accessibility and reservation more binding on government institutions.

However, a disability law is not enough to make a difference in society for persons with disability. Like everyone else, they are stakeholders in the community influenced by each and every policy. We need to gradually move towards a position where each ministry is given guidelines and each law considers both how it impacts persons with disability and how it can help in their emancipation. Let me illustrate.
As per the new Corporate Social Responsibility law, it is mandatory that companies spend 2% of their net profits on CSR initiatives. Given the challenges faced by persons with disability in getting employed, it might be a good idea that the cost to company of persons with disability be covered by, but not be limited to, the mandatory CSR spend.
Also imperative is making all private and public infrastructure accessible to persons with disability. There shall be no legal impediment in this since even private buildings require a completion certificate and occupation certificate from the government. These certificates are granted only after various norms are complied with, fire norms being among them. We merely need to add a norm on Universal Access.

This last provision’s criticality cannot be emphasised enough. I was at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad earlier this year and fell short of cash. Most people in such a position would have just visited an ATM and withdrawn money. Being wheelchair-bound, this option was not available to me since ATMs in India are too high for a wheelchair user to access, and there is no leg room for them to operate. While I eventually found a way to electronically transfer funds, Universal Access would have eliminated this trouble.
It is embarrassing that India, a country that claims to be on the path to superpowerdom, treats its persons with disability the way it does. Reforms will not only help persons with disability, but also the elderly who move from being abled to fully or partially disabled with passage of time. I hope to see India becoming a true Equal Opportunity country in my lifetime.
[The writer was born with Arthrogryposis (a rare congenital disorder that leads to a lack of muscles in arms and legs), due to which he is on a wheelchair. He is an alumnus of St Stephen’s College and the Delhi School of Economics. He was awarded the Navratan award 2013 for community work and social service. He is currently pursuing an Executive Masters from the Indian School of Business.]

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