As the World observes Disability Day on 3rd December, we would like to remind the world community that over 600 million people, or approximately 10 per cent of the world’s population, have a disability of one form or another. Over two thirds of them live in developing countries. Only 2 per cent of disabled children in the developing world receive any education or rehabilitation. The link between disability and poverty and social exclusion is direct and strong throughout the world.
India is not far behind as the statistics shows it has over 90 million disabled persons, barely one percent of whom are employed.
The disability rights debate is not so much about the enjoyment of specific rights as it is about ensuring the equal effective enjoyment of all human rights, without discrimination, by people with disabilities. The non-discrimination principle helps make human rights in general relevant in the specific context of disability. Non-discrimination, and the equal effective enjoyment of all human rights by people with disabilities, is long-overdue reform in the way disability and the disabled are viewed throughout the world. The process of ensuring that people with disabilities enjoy their human rights is slow and uneven. But the good thing is it has started taking place, in all economic and social
systems. It is inspired by the values that underpin human rights: the inestimable dignity of each and every human being, the concept of autonomy or self-determination that demands that the person be placed at the center of all decisions affecting him/her, the inherent equality of all regardless of difference, and the ethic of solidarity that requires society to sustain the freedom of the person with
appropriate social supports.
Over the past two decades a dramatic shift in perspective has taken place from an approach motivated by charity towards the disabled to one based on rights. In essence, the human rights perspective on disability means viewing people with disabilities as subjects and not as objects. It entails moving away from viewing people with disabilities as problems towards viewing them as holders of rights. Importantly, it means locating problems outside the disabled person and addressing the manner in which various economic and social processes accommodate the difference of disability – or not, as the case may be. The debate about the rights of the disabled is therefore connected to a larger debate about the place of difference in society.
The shift to the human rights perspective is also reflected in the fact that national institutions
for the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world have begun to take an active interest in disability issues. This is important since these institutions help in providing a bridge
between international human rights law and domestic debates about disability law and policy reform. National institutions are strategic partners in the process of change, and their increasing engagement on the issue of human rights for persons with disabilities is a highly encouraging sign for the future.
People with disabilities themselves are now framing their long-felt sense of grievance and injustice into the language of rights. Isolated injustices need no longer be experienced in isolation. NGOs working with disability issues such as the collaborative project Disability Awareness in Action are
beginning to see themselves also as human rights NGOs. They are beginning to collect and process hard information on alleged violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities. While still relatively limited, their human rights capacities are growing. A similar process of self-transformation is under way within traditional human rights NGOs, which are increasingly approaching disability
as a mainstream human rights issue. This is important, since these NGOs have highly developed structures, and the development of a healthy synergy between disability NGOs and traditional human rights NGOs is not only long overdue, but inevitable. States parties are demonstrably moving in the direction of the human rights perspective on disability. Recent research shows that 39 States in all parts of the world have adopted non-discrimination or equal opportunity legislation in the context of disability. States parties’ dialogue with the human rights treaty bodies is constructive in the context of
their efforts to secure disability reform; a significant amount of good practice now exists on a worldwide basis, which can be usefully propagated through the human rights treaty system.
The Indian Experience
The human rights movement in India has boldly and categorically shifted the attention of policy makers from the mere provision of charitable services to vigorously protecting their basic right to dignity and self-respect. In the new scenario, the disabled are viewed as individuals with a wide range of abilities and each one of them willing and capable to utilize his/her potential and talents. Society, on the other hand, is seen as the real cause of the misery of people with disabilities since it continues
to put numerous barriers as expressed in education, employment, architecture, transport, health and dozens of other activities.
In a country like India the numbers of the disabled are so large, their problems so complex, available resources so scarce and social attitudes so damaging, it is only legislation which can eventually bring about a substantial change in a uniform manner. Although legislation cannot alone radically change the fabric of a society in a short span of time, it can nevertheless, increase accessibility of the disabled to education and employment, to public buildings and shopping centers, to means of transport and communication. The impact of well-directed legislation in the long run would be profound and liberating. One out of every ten people in India suffers from one form of disability or the other that is they possess physical or mental impairment substantially limits one or more of major life activities. In
other words, 90 million of our countrymen live with, and learn to overcome in their own individual ways, problems which non-disabled can seldom understand. The law should enable not only one in ten people but also nine out of every ten people to lead their lives to their fullest potential. The law declares that disability need not be an insurmountable handicap as long as it can be properly understood and catered for. The law attempts to eradicate factors which produce low self-esteem in disabled people and empowers them to confront the insensitivity and ignorance of others.
The Legal Framework
A comprehensive Act known as Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995 (Act 1 of 1996) was unanimously passed by both the houses of Parliament on 22nd December 1995, which got the assent of the President on 1st January 1996. The Act has 14 chapters and seeks to:
a) Spell out the state’s responsibility towards prevention of impairments and protection of disabled people’s rights in health, education, training, employment and rehabilitation;
b) Work to create a barrier-free environment for disabled people
c) Work to remove discrimination in the sharing of development benefits
d) Counteract any abuse or exploitation of disabled people
e) Lay down strategies for a comprehensive development of programmes and services and for equalization of opportunities for disabled people; and
f) Make provision for the integration of disabled people into the social mainstream.
The Act has been in effect from 7th February 1996.
One of the weaknesses of much of the legislation has been that the enforcement of their provisions has been left to the Courts of Law without specifying summary procedures to be followed in the event of
proceedings under the respective legislations. This makes it difficult for persons with disabilities who usually have limited resources and legal knowledge to participate in complicated, lengthy and expensive legal process.
At the same the definition of disability as given in 1995 Act needs to be widen to protect the rights of people suffering from HIV, leprosy and internal organ failure. Currently the Act gives protection to those suffering from, blindness, low vision, leprosy cured, hearing impaired, mental retardation, mental illness and locomotor disability. There are 600 million people in the world, nearly ten percent of the world’s population, who suffer from one disability or the other. Of these, 90 million are from India. However, even then, the total percentage of the disabled people in India is just six per cent of its population while in the developed nation like USA the disabled population’s percentage is nine percent.
This is not because there are more disabled persons in USA but because the definition of disability is wider in USA. Besides limited scope, there are some other lacunae in the act too. There are no guidelines and no deadlines set for non-adherence. Most government and semi-government organisations do not strictly follow the guidelines to reserve three per cent jobs for disabled
and yet they go unpunished. Also, as per the Act the compensation is to be awarded to a disabled as per the financial capacity of the employer. The employers often take advantage of this clause. Also, a provision to award some temporary relieves, till the case is decided, to the affected (disabled) employee needs to be incorporated. In the age of growing consumerism and glamour this is how we view them, “Customs duties on semi-precious stones and raw cultured pearls is 5 percent while the duty on hearing aids is 15 percent. If cordless phones are charged only 15 percent duty, the disabled shell out 25 percent as surcharge on crutches and artificial limbs.”
The act has come a long way since its inception and the real danger now is that those who had been vigorously demanding its enactment might become complacent and think that the job has been done. The Act must be implemented in schools and colleges, in factories and workplaces, in transport and shopping centers. People with disabilities, and those who care for them, must ensure that
discrimination is outlawed and barriers are removed as much from the physical environment as from the attitudes of ordinary people. The real battle for the right to full citizenship and active participation of disabled people is ahead. The Act is comprehensive but must be enforced with sincerity and determination. “What is disability – your frame of mind is the real disability”. Let us change our attitudes and help to change others. Make a commitment to end unfair and unfounded prejudices. Open minds and doors to people with disabilities. Repeat in speeches, writings and films three words: Disability, Equality, Liberty. Listen to disabled people. Serve disabled people. Work with disabled
people. Travel with disabled people. Shop with disabled people. Have them as friends. Mere changing the Acts and passing legislation’s will not help. The need is to change the attitude of the society.”