You are here: Home / Accessibility / Blog / The Accessibility Campaign--Intervention Where and How?

The Accessibility Campaign--Intervention Where and How?

Posted by Nirmita Narasimhan at Nov 25, 2008 07:15 AM |
As a follow up to our first meeting on a national policy for accessibility, this blog entry looks at some of the important international and national provisions that deal specifically with accessibility over the internet.


The Asian Decade for Promotion of Disability Rights brought with it some awareness and the beginnings of a movement for disability rights in India. The first comprehensive national effort  in India towards formulating a law for the recognition, protection and promotion of the rights of disabled persons came with the enactment of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995 (the “PWD Act”). The Act sought to introduce several measures to ensure access for disabled persons in the fields of education, employment and so on and called for the setting up of a national and several state focal points (in the form of the Central and State Co-ordination Committees) to look into matters relating to disabled persons. The coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“UNCRPD”) triggered off a fresh wave of  campaigns for the rights of persons with disabilities in countries around the globe. The UNCRPD makes an express reference to the protection of the rights of disabled persons as being vital to preserving their human dignity and worth. The Convention calls for the protection of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights of disabled persons and enunciates the principles of equality, human rights and fundamental freedoms. India is a signatory to the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asia Pacific Region, the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action towards an Inclusive, Barrier-free and Rights-based Society for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific and the UNCRPD.

Having ratified the UNCRPD, it is obligatory for India to put into effect the principles in the Convention by amending, modifying and deleting (wherever relevant) her national laws for disabled persons.However, although India has had three legislations specifically dealing with disabled persons, the PWD Act (1995), the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disability Act (1999) and the Rehabilitation Council of India Act (1992), for about a decade now, many of the principles laid down in the UNCRPD do not find any place in the current Indian law. One of the fundamental points of difference between the PWD Act and the UNCRPD, for instance, is the approach each of them takes towards understanding the notion of 'disability'; while India has adopted a narrow medical model of defining disability, the UNCRPD adopts the social model which is more inclusive and comprehensive. 

Further, the PWD Act is primarily concerned with the social and economic rights of persons with disabilities and hardly takes into account their civil and political rights as well. The Act itself devotes an entire chapter to affirmative action on the part of the government, which deals with concessions in different areas such as employment, transportation, housing, social security and so on.

The UNCRPD on the other hand takes a more positive approach towards working with disability by embodying the principles of equality and the fulfillment of basic and fundamental human rights and freedoms. It calls for governments to ensure that reasonable accommodations are made for persons with disabilities to carry on their activities on par with others. The Convention also encourages governments to oblige private parties and organisations to  ensure that their services are accessible to all. It further recognizes the importance of all round development of disabled individuals and calls for accommodations and accessibility in areas like recreation and sports as well in addition to the general ones like education, employment, etc.

Article 9 is of special importance for this campaign since it obligates States to ensure that PWDs have access to information and information technologies and to develop minimum standards of accessibility. Article 9.2 (g) especially lays down that states should facilitate access for PWDs to new information and communication technologies, especially the internet. Article 21 of the Convention deals with the fundamental right of PWDs to opinion and expression; this includes their right to seek, receive and impart information. It mandates states to make all information which is made available to the general public available to PWDs in accessible formats, including electronic formats, within reasonable time and at no extra cost. It also asks state parties to encourage all private persons, organisations and the media, who provide services to the public on the internet to make them accessible to PWDs. The Convention also calls for states to ensure that all educational, cultural, recreational and official materials are available to PWDs in accessible formats.

In India, while legislations broadly recognize that PWDs should have access to materials, there is nothing specifically mandating states to ensure accessibility in all official and private transactions. Article 19 of our constitution enumerates the right to the freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. Section 3 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 lays down that every citizen has the right to information and the Act confers citizens with the right to require the government to make such information available to him/her by filing an application to the government department concerned. Section 4 lays down that the Government should make all information available to the public in accessible form and should, as soon as possible, computerise all information which is capable of being computerised, in order to facilitate greater access amongst citizens. Section 8 and 9 of the Act list out some of the cases in which the State is not bound to disclose information to citizens. The Information and Technology Act 2000 is entirely silent on the subject of web accessibility. Similarly, while there are fragmented pieces of legislation which vaguely address the questions of availability and accessibility of public information and cultural and educational materials, there are no explicit Acts or Guidelines or provisions which recognize the right of disabled persons to accessible information on an equal basis with others. Given the expanding scope of technologies, it is of immediate urgency that the Government addresses this issue and makes the necessary additions and modifications in the PWD Act and the RTI Act to make it obligatory for states to provide all information in accessible formats as well as seriously consider coming out with a comprehensive policy and guidelines for accessibility of information for persons with disabilities.

The government over the past decade has addressed certain issues regarding disabled persons in its ninth and ten five year plans. The recognition that disabled persons have a right to information and an accessible web was expressed in the ninth five year plan. This was subsequently reaffirmed by the tenth plan which went further to allocate a component in the budget of each government department for implementing provisions relating to PWDs. The National Policy for Persons with Disabilities was adopted in 2006. It recognized that disabled people are valuable human resources for the country. The policy focuses primarily on prevention of disability, early detection and appropriate intervention, physical and economic rehabilitation measures, inclusive education, employment in the public as well as the private sector and self–employment, creation of a barrier-free environment and development of rehabilitation professionals. 

It is, however, disappointing to note that while the National Policy for Disabled Persons had a laudable objective insofar as it was intended to formulate more clearly the government’s roadmap for securing an enabling environment for disabled persons, the policy document itself fell short of its intended purpose; it does not clearly set out any schemes, strategies and plans for achieving these objectives. Hence it ends up merely being a revised version of the PWD Act itself. In the eleventh five year plan the government has yet again come out with positive measures for disabled persons. The plan calls for the setting up of a National Institute of Universal Design to promote greater accessibility and a barrier free environment. The eleventh plan emphasizes the need to carry out all the objectives set out in the tenth plan.

The National Policy of 2006 does talk about securing primary and secondary education to every child by 2020 and also about making educational materials available in accessible formats to children with different disabilities, as well as creating a barrier free physical environment. Hence there is no dearth of areas where interventions need to be and can be made. We need to take a twin pronged approach to bring about desired action. Making provisions in the RTI and PWD Act more specific to include provision of materials and information in accessible formats in a timely fashion at no extra cost (ii) to formulate definite schemes under the national policy or other documents and (iii) to ensure that these, are implemented properly.

We need to ensure that Article 9 of the UNCRPD is clearly reflected in our laws. Section 4 of the RTI Act with regard to information needs to be worded more specifically. Provisions in our legislations which call for a barrier free environment should be expanded to include a “digital as well as physical barrier free environment”. Apart from that, the Government might consider coming out with guidelines for accessibility, which lays down minimum standards of accessibility for creating and maintaining electronic content. Most importantly, it would be very useful if the government began by ensuring that all the sites of government departments and public listed companies were made accessible.