The Supreme Court observed that “employment is a key factor in the empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities” in its judgment in the Union of India v.National Federation of the Blind case (2013).
The verdict registered the “alarming reality” of disabled persons out of jobs, not because of their disabilities but due to social and physical barriers that prevent them from joining the workforce.
This is despite India ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and passing the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. Repeated orders of the court to give disabled persons their due have been breached continuously.
However, a new chapter has begun with the introduction of a new law by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on April 19, 2017.
Parliament repealed the 1995 Act and brought in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, the Preamble of which marks respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of disabled persons, among other goals. The 2016 Act is expected to give full effect to the United Nations Convention.
When the government brought the new Act to the notice of a three-judge Supreme Court Bench led by Justice Dipak Misra, the court responded with a 32-page judgment on April 25, highlighting that “immediacy of action is the warrant”.
The court gave State governments and Union Territories a 12-week deadline to comply with the provisions of the new law and file compliance reports in the court.
In its judgment, the court noted that the 2016 Act provides “more rights to disabled persons”. This includes access to justice, free education, role of local authorities as providers of employment and opportunity, and National and State funds.
Notably, the Act emphasises the creation of special courts, and speedy trials and special public prosecutors for offences committed against disabled persons under the Act. The law also makes private companies equally liable for violating the Act.
“The 2016 Act is noticeably a sea change in perception and marches ahead with regard to (rights of) persons with disabilities and the role of the States, local authorities, educational institutions and companies. The statute operates in a broad spectrum and the stress is laid to protect the rights and provide punishment for its violation,” Justice Misra wrote.