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The Right of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2013 and the Lack of Access to Accessibility Rights

Posted by Amba Salelkar at Jan 31, 2014 09:00 AM |
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The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2013 (The RPD Bill) went through three avatars since its commissioning in 2009 under the Sudha Kaul Committee. This blog post brings you a summary of the three stages since it was initially commissioned.

The first was the one the Committee proposed in 2011, after consultations with persons with disabilities and Disabled People's Organizations across the country; the second was notified by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2012, which was in parts opposed to by several stakeholders; and the third, the RPD BIll of 2013, has actually brought the entire disability lobby, as it were, together, in being entirely appalled at the turn of events. The Bill, which is being furiously evaluated in the short time available between its being made available to the public and its impending introduction (and possible passing in the House), is full of flaws. Not only does it not adhere to the standards of the UNCRPD, but it also violates the spirit of the Indian Constitution, as well as contradicting existing case law, and most importantly it betrays the consensus and recommendations of persons with disabilities who were initially part of these recommendations.

Doubtlessly, while access to government establishments and entities like courts, collectorates, municipal offices, is important for persons with disabilities, there are other establishments which are equally important for persons with disabilities, for purposes of recreation, access to culture, and private services. I've made the point elsewhere that the law proposed is less of an empowering statute and more on the lines of the charity model – and in line with that, the indication is that persons with disabilities will only ever have to come in contact with the government and other entities, so they can enforce rights, take grants, petition government servants, etc. But if the statute itself is rights based, why so much focus on access to forums for rights enforcement, and not on others beyond this?

While they did have their flaws, the 2011 and 2012 versions of the Bill, which had rather comprehensive provisions with regard to ensuring accessibility. To start with, the right of persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others to the physical environment, transportation, information and communications, including appropriate technologies and systems, and other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas, was  recognized. The RPD Bill recognizes the obligation of the government to provide accessibility measures, but by now wording it in terms of a right, it does not do complete justice. The 2011 and 2012 drafts were replete with separate sections on the right to transport, personal mobility, communications, services, the built environment, etc. On the other hand, the RPD Bill clumsily lops all of these into a few sections, with repeated emphasis on infrastructure and services run by "establishments", which is, in effect, the government. There is no mention of website accessibility, though a cursory mention is made to the appropriate government ensuring that all contents available in audio, print and electronic media are in accessible format; and that persons with disabilities have access to electronic media by providing audio description, sign language interpretation and close captioning. Again, the ambiguity as to whether this extends to websites which are not run by the government, is not clear.

There is another aspect to accessibility which is lost under the Act by its failure to recognize it as a right. A senior person in the sector, who is blind, told me of an instance where he was barred from entering a bar with some friends. "You won't be able to tell what the bill is or how many drinks you've had", said the manager. He was therefore, being discriminated against entering a place, solely on the grounds of his disability. Persons who have been cured of leprosy are denied access to transport and other public facilities on the basis of outdated statutes. Persons who use crutches and calllipers are denied entry to religious places. The understanding of the Bill on accessibility is extremely limited, and limited to the built environment of government establishments, and this does nothing to extend the rights of persons with disabilities. Groups which are forwarding non negotiables for amendments to the Bill do not consider, at present, the right to accessibility to be a non negotiable. I do wonder, however, whether any of the other rights make sense when express and implied bars to access exist and are effectively encouraged, under this proposed law.

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