The Budget session that concluded on April 6 may be the last to be held in the Parliament building. With the new Parliament complex ready, the monsoon session in July-August is likely to be held there. At the same time, Parliament is also transitioning digitally with the soft launch of the Sansad portal and the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha websites.
With this evolution of Parliament, it is imperative that not just its physical but also its digital aspects are accessible. But the procedural accessibility for persons with disabilities is often ignored in the functioning of Parliament.
The new Parliament building is being built as per the 2016 Universal Accessibility guidelines, say its developers. The 2016 guidelines, officially termed “Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier-Free Built Environment for Persons with Disabilities and Elderly Persons”, focus on a barrier-free environment. This aligns with the mandate of the 2015 Accessible India Policy, of which barrier-free infrastructure was one of three components.
However, both the guidelines and policy are restricted in their approach as they overemphasise visible disabilities and their accommodation. Thus, the installation of ramps, provision for lifts and development of accessible toilets are seen as exhaustive measures of accessibility. Parliament, signifying a new vision for the country, will be doing a disservice to the community of persons with disabilities if it continues with this dated understanding of accessibility.
The 2021 Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs expand the horizon of universal design. The guidelines go beyond visible forms of disabilities and underscore the need to consider invisible disabilities such as neurological and mental conditions. They look beyond only disabled people to the elderly, women, trans individuals or persons with temporary or permanent health conditions requiring accessible infrastructure.
The accessibility of Parliament is not restricted to the House, entrances, pathways, chambers and more. Accessibility should be equal for all. So, a garden or a balcony should be designed to allow a person with a disability to experience the atmosphere the same way a non-disabled person can.
The Parliament of India is also shifting to digital operations. For instance, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar has asked the Rajya Sabha Secretariat to go paperless. But many components of the House remain inaccessible, ranging from the websites – with respect to the web content accessibility guidelines developed by World Wide Web Consortium – to procedural inaccessibility.
The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha websites still do not have accessibility statements, making it unclear what level of accessibility has been ensured for these websites. This even though the Guidelines for Indian Government Websites prescribe for an accessibility statement mandate.
The inaccessibility percolates in myriad forms to associated websites such as the debates archive, parliamentary library, Member’s Portal (for Members of Parliament) and others. Some documents on debates uploaded to the website do not have Optical Character Recognition – that converts written text into a format that can be read by a machine or device.
The Member’s Portal does not have an audio captcha for the sign-in feature – where the text or image is read out for a user. The links on the main website do not have a description to allow screen readers to navigate from the landing page.
However, there are extensive plans for the Sansad website, such as the incorporation of artificial intelligence-based technology to allow for live transcribing. This can facilitate accessibility requirements such as live captions or providing information in an accessible format. Artificial intelligence-based technology can also be incorporated into the default design and disbursal of information through the website.
Procedures in both Houses of Parliament are systematically designed to cater to non-disabled people. To start with, there is no sign language interpreter or closed captioning during the live-streaming of House proceedings. Proceedings are usually live streamed on the SansadTV portal and the official YouTube channel.
In 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had said that it was in the process of notifying Accessibility Guidelines for Television Broadcasters for hearing impaired individuals. The guidelines included accessibility norms such as closed captions, subtitles, visible sign language interpreters and more. Certain live events were excluded from the purview of the guidelines. But nearly two years later, these guidelines have still not been notified.
In the United Kingdom, Parliament tested live sign language in limited parliament procedures in 2020. Before that, in 2018, New Zealand announced mandatory sign language for oral questions – equivalent to starred questions in India – asked in Parliament. Gradually, this was expanded to other procedures as well.
Second, the documentation provided in physical and digital formats during House proceedings is not accessible. The documents are often scanned in image format and often have a standard font size. Braille service is presumed to be restricted to the Parliament library, making it difficult to provide accessible documents during discussions. The new Parliament building will have a digital tablet for every member at their seat, which can be designed to include accessible features such as magnifiers and screen readers allowing for greater participation.
Third is the attitudinal barriers by the secretariat and members. Often, this translates into demeaning phraseology directed at persons with disabilities or a misplaced understanding of the needs of the people. For instance, during the voting for the most recent presidential election at Parliament, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was helped up from his wheelchair because the ballot box was placed at a height that was not accessible for wheelchair users.
A parliamentary research note released in 2019 titled “Making Parliamentary Work Accessible to Disabled People: Best Practice” showcases the dearth of acknowledgment in Parliament processes. The suggestions are individual-centric and have been recommended based on the prior experience of disabled MPs. For instance, in case of the inability to move from a seat, the oath of affirmation can be made at their seat.
For visually impaired MPs, the oath of affirmation can be read by other members. Another suggestion says that walking sticks can only be allowed with the permission of the Speaker.This highlights the need-based approach by the secretariat where individuals with permanent or temporary disabilities have to seek accommodation instead of accommodative procedures being designed into the system by default.
In the future, there is the hope that India will see increased participation from the disabled population, especially in politics where their representation is miniscule. If Parliament may have many disabled members in the future, it is imperative to provide an ecosystem that is equally accessible to such public representatives.
Here are a few useful measures to consider:
There should be a technical and social audit of Parliament infrastructure before it is officially inaugurated. This will provide sufficient time for developers to eliminate barriers that may have been overlooked.
Secretariat and members’ staff should be trained in digital accessibility requirements and features. With the evolution of technology, new barriers and simultaneous solutions can be considered.
The rules of procedure for both Houses of Parliament should be amended to provide a framework on incorporating accessibility instead of placing the burden on persons with disabilities.
Finally, the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs can provide for a dedicated Committee on Ensuring Reasonable Accommodation that will ensure proper identification, redressal and implementation of accessible measures. Alternatively, the scope of the House Committee can also be expanded to cover these measures.
The new Parliament is an opportunity to embark on enhanced political participation of disabled population. The new building of the largest democracy should also be accessible for its largest invisible minority.
Shashank Pandey is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. His email address is Shashank.firstname.lastname@example.org