Navigating life as a consumer with disability

A collaborative effort between businesses and the government, supported by a robust legal framework, is imperative to effectively protect the rights of consumers with disabilities and afford them an equal opportunity to participate in the marketplace and society

Updated - April 17, 2024 08:34 pm IST

Published - April 17, 2024 02:01 am IST

Businesses generally don’t perceive persons with disabilities as their target consumers. Image for representation.

Businesses generally don’t perceive persons with disabilities as their target consumers. Image for representation. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Every year, March 15 is celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day to create awareness about the rights of consumers. One section of consumers who might remain invisible in these celebrations or even in the discourse around consumer rights is consumers with disabilities.

Imagine yourself in the place of a person with visual impairment heading to the supermarket to buy a toaster. You start by booking a cab ride through a mobile app, but since the app is not accessible, you seek external help to book the ride. At the supermarket, there are no tactile pavements in the building, so you seek external help to reach the electronic appliance section and buy a toaster. When you reach home, you realise the toaster is defective and try to contact the customer support of the toaster company. But since the contact details are printed on the outer pack, you seek external help to read them. Discovering that the company only accepts written complaints via postal mail, once again you seek external help to send a complaint to the company.

Every single day, persons with disabilities face this struggle of seeking help for the most basic human activities, and the consequent loss of dignity, independence, and privacy. The pervasive inaccessibility that they encounter as consumers not only undermines their right to lead an independent life but also prevents them from equally participating in society as others.

The potential change-makers

The situation discussed above highlights two major challenges for consumers with disabilities: the inaccessibility of goods and services and the inaccessibility of customer support options. This brings us to the most pertinent question: who bears responsibility for this rampant inaccessibility? Rather, who has the capacity to enhance the consumer experience of persons with disabilities?

Businesses could be a starting point. Businesses generally don’t perceive persons with disabilities as their target consumers. This is evidenced by their inaccessible offerings, which are typically designed for ‘mainstream’ consumers. In India, persons with disabilities account for 5-8% of the population (World Bank, 2009). Therefore, if not out of generosity, businesses could consider making their offerings accessible just to broaden their customer reach.

Another entity capable of making a difference is the government. The gap in sensitisation among businesses can be abridged through effective policy measures. For example, FSSAI in October 2023 issued an advisory to all food business operators for incorporating QR codes containing product information on all food products. This simple yet effective step will allow people with visual impairment to ascertain crucial product information on their own. While transformative, this measure is limited to one type of product. The government could consider bringing comprehensive accessibility guidelines for all goods and services. India can build on the lessons from the initiatives in countries such as Australia, the U.S., and Canada and integrate similar strategies into its policies.

Legal reforms

Persons with disabilities are also empowered by laws that safeguard their rights and interests as consumers. The primary legislation in this regard is the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWDA), 2016, which grants a bouquet of rights including the rights to equality, accessibility, and reasonable accommodation. In particular, the Act includes provisions for universally designed consumer goods and accessible services (Sections 43 and 46). The Rules notified under the RPWDA also require all Information and Communications Technology (ICT) goods and services to be accessible in accordance with the BIS standards laid down by the government. In case of a violation of these rights, a consumer with disability can file a complaint with the Disability Commissions established under the Act. For example, following a complaint by one of us (Rahul), the well-known healthcare service provider Practo was directed to make its website and application accessible. Similarly, complaints regarding accessibility barriers in services such as banking, insurance, and hospitality have also been filed. However, Disability Commissions only issue recommendatory directions. So, they often fail to provide effective redress.

Another avenue is the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 2019, which not only details various consumer rights but also empowers Consumer Commissions to impose penalties and award compensation against consumer complaints. Consumers with disabilities have successfully obtained such remedies in numerous cases brought before Consumer Commissions. For example, in S. Suresh v. The Manager i/c, Gokulam Cinemas, a person with locomotor disability who encountered inaccessibility at a cinema hall was awarded a compensation of ₹1,00,000.

Unlike the RPWDA, the CPA has strong enforcement and compliance mechanisms. However, it lacks any dedicated rights for consumers with disabilities contrary to the RPWDA, which may deter them from filing complaints with Consumer Commissions. Hence, it becomes imperative to align the CPA with the RPWDA.

In addition to these legal reforms, it is crucial to raise awareness about the existing rights and resources available to consumers with disabilities under the two chief legislations. While consumer awareness has been a key focus of the state, particularly with the launch of the flagship Jago Grahak Jago Campaign, consumers with disabilities have never received attention.

Rahul Bajaj is Senior Associate Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy; Somya Jain is Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy

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