sweeping changes

The disabled community is far stronger, far more mature: The long wait for a strong disability law

Disability rights activist Javed Abidi says that the new bill passed in the Rajya Sabha is a big win.

After days of disruptions and adjournments in parliament, the Rajya Sabha of Wednesday unanimously passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill. The Bill replaces the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, a law that disability rights activists have criticised as toothless.

The most significant change that the new Bill brings in an expansion of the definition of disability from seven conditions mentioned in the 1995 to 21 conditions. The bill confers several rights to disabled people such as disabled-friendly access to public buildings, hospitals, transport and polling stations as well as benefits such as reservations in education and employment to persons with at least 40% of a disability.

While the disabled community waits for the bill to be passed by the Lok Sabha, convener of the Disabled Rights Group Javed Abidi spoke to Scroll.in about the long road to getting the bill to parliament and the huge step foward for disabled people in India.

You have been a key advocate for this new law from the start.
In my capacity as convener of the Disabled Rights Group – we were the people who in 2010 went to the minister and said what “we need is a new law”. Mukul Wasnik was the minister at that time in the UPA I government and he was in a hurry to bring amendments to the 1995 law. We said, “Sorry, no matter how many amendments you bring to the 1995 law, it is so old and so archaic that it will never meet the aspirations of disabled people in the 21st century.” It took seven months to convince the minister – seven months of sustained advocacy, rallies, dharnas and all sorts of things. Finally, he conceded to our demands and that’s why the Sudha Kaul Committee was set up. It was the Sudha Kaul Committee that drafted the bill.

We have been constantly monitoring the work of the ministry and the work of the committee. For instance, when the committee was first constituted, there was not a single disabled person on the committee. So we criticised the minister again, we had dharnas and rallies to say that “you cannot have this committee comprising of [health] professionals and parents”. So disabled people were included in the committee. Then we were constantly monitoring the work of the committee and giving inputs.

The entire process happened from 2010 to 2014 and it was only in the Winter Session of 2014 that the final shape of the bill came out and the bill was finally brought to the Rajya Sabha.

Javed Abidi, convener of the Disabled Rights Group.
Javed Abidi, convener of the Disabled Rights Group.

In September, you expressed some concern that, although the bill proposed an expansion of the definition of disability from seven conditions mentioned in the 1995 act to 19 conditions, some conditions like haemophilia and thalassemia may not make it as a disability in the final version. Now, all 19 have been included and two more – acid attacks and Parkinson’s.
It’s fantastic. That is the job of a watchdog and advocate – to ensure that damage is not done. There was a very big fear that the government was very seriously considering the number of disabilities and there was confusion in the minds of some people in government that those were not disabilities but diseases. That is a moot point now.

I am very pleased that the prime minister himself intervened and that damage was not caused. So now, the number of disabilities mentioned has gone up from seven to 21. That is a three-time increase.

I interpret that as a win for many people with disabilities who have been completely marginalised, completely neglected for all these 60–70 years since India’s independence. Earlier we didn’t have a disability law and when we got a disability law in 1995, it didn’t do justice to people with autism, haemophilia, learning disabilities and so on. Two decades have gone by and we have been sitting on the sidelines and watching while only the blind, the deaf and the orthopaedically disabled have benefitted.

Of late, I have been saying a lot that, while we are a marginalised sector and are probably the biggest minority, within the disability sector there are the “haves” and “have nots”. This bill is less about the “haves” and more about the “have nots”.

Are there other categories of disabilities that you think should have been included but have not been?
There is a bit of a debate on this. I know that there are people with one or two conditions that have been lobbying ­– like people with spinal injuries want it to be mentioned by name. Even the committee has said that if you are a person with a spinal cord injury then obviously you are orthpaedically disabled. Every single medical condition cannot be listed like you cannot list polio and amputee. You can be orthopaedically disabled due to any reason and the bottom line is that you are covered by the law. It is an emotional thing that they want to be mentioned by name.

The other positive aspect of the bill is that the definition of disability is flexible. The law ministry has given the flexibility and the right to the central government from time to time to notify and add more conditions and make changes as the need fits. In that way, it is a very dynamic bill, which I personally appreciate a lot.

The 1995 law gives 3% reservation to disabled people in institutions of higher education and government jobs. The 2014 bill had increased that to 5%. In the final version that has been passed by the Rajya Sabha, reservation in employment has been cut to 4%.
Well, I would have obviously wanted it to remain at 5%. We fought so hard for it and we argued in front of the committee and had succeeded in taking it from 3% to 5% and that’s not a small achievement. From 5% for it to have been brought down to 4% is obviously a disappointment.

But this is not a reason enough for me to feel so angry or upset that I would stall the bill. I am looking at the bill as a big picture and that is a very good picture. It is a huge vast improvement over the 1995 law. So we are getting a good deal and it will take disabled people forward. One, two or three years later we can always demand more amendments.

There are some dilutions like we have lost the disability commission and the punishment [for discrimination against disabled people] has been diluted. The punishment clause had a jail term, which has not been removed. But when I look at the big picture I am happy.

Once this is the law of the land, do you see any challenges in its implementation?
One of the obvious things is that the disability sector is far stronger, far more mature and far more demanding. The media is far more vigilant and the government is far more proactive. The present government seems to be very very serious about disabilities.

Obviously there will be challenges to implementation because it is such a huge bill and there is so much in it for the deaf, for the blind and for sign language and captioning – there will be a lot for the department to cope with. But the law empowers the citizens and even if some aspect is being ignored by the department, citizens can go to court and demand justice. So there is a lot of work ahead of us but very good, positive work.

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