This is the first of a two-part series that seeks to examine some key elements of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill

S. Adieshwer Ram wants to become a fashion designer. The 18-year-old class X student, who has cerebral palsy and low vision, wants to finish his board exams this year and enrol in a design course. “I want to get a job quickly. I will design my creations on the computer and they can be executed on clothes,” he said.

What though, are his chances of a job in the private sector? “Very low,” his mother R. Shanthi admitted. “We will have to see if he can be self-employed.”

For Shanthi and her family, the battle for the rights of the disabled, offered hope. “I thought that finally, our struggles would end. Finally, I wouldn’t have to fight and beg for my son to be admitted to a school. Finally, there may be a chance of his being employed through reservation,” she said.

But the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Bill that has been tabled in the Rajya Sabha may not help people like Adieshwer, activists say.

“Under the Bill, reservation for persons with disabilities has been increased from the current three per cent to five per cent. However, this is restricted to establishments, and the term establishment is defined as the government, or companies established by the government. It does include any private companies, and so, there is no onus upon them to provide employment,” said Meenakshi Balasubramanian, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA).

Also, the proviso to clause 2 under section 33 of the Bill could deny people a fair chance at reservation. “An establishment can, if it gets permission from the appropriate authority, switch between disabilities for reservation, if the nature of vacancies is such that a given category of person cannot be employed. So theoretically, an establishment can fill up its five per cent with just visually-impaired people. They may not even have to consider those with cerebral palsy,” said Amba Salelkar, of the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy.

And even if Adieshwer gets a job at a government establishment, will he be able to get to his workplace?

“Access is limited to government establishments and public buildings. Under section 40 (1) (b) of the Bill, vehicles should be made disabled-friendly — if it is technically feasible, safe and economically viable. But who decides this? And if the costs are huge does that mean our vehicles will not be disabled-friendly? All this indicates is that the chances of our public transport being made disabled-friendly are slim,” said Rajiv Rajan, a member of the DRA.

The Bill has evoked strong criticism from some activists who have called it discriminatory and regressive. For instance, activists said one section states the Bill will not override any other law in existence, which is problematic. However, others point out the Bill’s benefits, the major one being the list of disabilities has been increased from seven to 19 to include disorders such as sickle cell disease, haemophilia, thalassemia and autism.

All Shanthi wants, is for her son to be independent. “I lost my husband in 2000 and I support my son. He doesn’t want or need a guardian. But, he cannot get a bank account of his own even though he is a major. Will this situation change with the Bill,” she asked.

According to DRA activists, it will not.

‘Bill legitimises discrimination’

“Is the Bill perfect? No. But it is a game-changer? For this first time in this country, people with autism and dyslexia will be able to get a disability certificate. They will be able to get concessions, financial assistance and apply for reservations in jobs. This Bill is about some of the most neglected communities in India. And if doesn’t pass, there will be a net loss of at least two years. Can persons with disabilities in this country afford that,” asked Javed Abidi, founder, Disability Rights Group, and the driving force behind the bill.

But Pawan Muntha, a social activist, disagrees. “What has this Bill achieved that a few amendments to the The Persons With Disabilities Act, 1995 could not have achieved? Did we work for five years for this? This Bill just legitimises discrimination,” he said.

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