The Sunday StoryEven 16 years after the passing of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, which directs the government to ensure that the built environment, roads and transport remain non-discriminatory , not much has changed.
If design reflects the priorities of society, as professionals claim, then buildings and products in India clearly place people with disabilities at the bottom of their list. Surveys in Delhi, Chennai and many other cities show that buildings remain less accessible and inconvenient to people with disabilities; transport and public amenities hardly accommodate those who are on wheelchair and with cognitive difficulties and visual impairment; and gadgets and services delivery exclude the handicapped.
Even 16 years after the passing of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, which directs the government to ensure that the built environment, roads and transport remain non-discriminatory , not much has changed.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in its recent annual report, proudly claims that after eight years of persuasion, 28 States have amended their municipal building by-laws to accommodate the disabled. However, the reality is that these laws are followed more in the breach. One would hardly find public and private buildings with easy access ramps, Braille signals in lifts, reserved parking and special toilets. Auditory traffic signals, wheelchair-friendly footpaths and curbs, low-vision compliant zebra-crossing are still distant.
Following the notification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, many countries broadened the categorisation of persons with disabilities and amended their legislation to enable large numbers of people with different kinds of disabilities to exercise their rights. India, one of the early signatories to the convention, also proposed amendments to its Act.
The proposed Persons with Disabilities Bill, which awaits Parliament’s approval, identifies more than 15 kinds of disabilities. It directs the National Commission, which it plans to set up, to formulate accessibility standards not only for the built environment but also transport, Information and Communication Technologies and consumer services. It also looks at ways to permit ‘service animals’ for the disabled as guides. This bill could also help provide for children and elderly-friendly environments.
If it is a struggle to implement even the brief requirements spelt out by the existing Act, will the proposed bill, with expanded design obligations to create a more inclusive environment, deliver?
The proposed legislation relies on national- and State-level Commissions for enforcement. Given the scale of construction and the geographical spread, this weak institutional arrangement is certain to prove ineffective. The way forward would be to dovetail the proposed regulations with local building rules and implement them with zero tolerance.
The bill has penal provisions for the individuals who fail to accommodate people with disabilities. It should hold the lackadaisical government authorities equally responsible.