An amendment earlier this month to the Right of Persons with Disabilities Rules 2017 revised guidelines that makes it necessary for every establishment to provide accessible infrastructure to a broader population whose movements are hampered by any characteristics – not just persons with disabilities.
These standards provide a basic framework for public and private establishments to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities. They can no longer take the excuse or defence of lack of mandate or uncertainty.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, requires ministries and departments to issue standards of accessibility under Section 40 and to ensure compliance with them. However, the fact that there are overlapping accessibility standards and a lack of coordination among ministries and departments has resulted in a multiplicity of mandates and efforts. As a result, these mandates might create some degree of uncertainty for establishments.
For instance, draft accessibility guidelines released by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Sports for public comments deal with different elements of the built environment such as parking, ticket counters, toilets and corridors.
Similarly, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ latest Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India, 2021, provides a detailed accessibility mandate for the built environment based on the principle of universal design. It raises the standard from the previous “barrier-free” mandate to “universal design”. However, there is an absence of cross-referencing of these Harmonised Guidelines, 2021, in the accessibility standards released by other ministries.
In a similar vein, multiple guidelines address the elements of digital accessibility for websites. It is unclear which agency will adjudicate where there is a divergence of accessibility mandates on a similar subject.
To make these standards of accessibility enforceable by ministries and departments under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, they must be notified under the Right of Persons with Disabilities Rules. Hence, we are seeing a series of amendments by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, in specific provisions, already specifies mandates to ensure accessibility and accommodation in transport and access to information and communication technology. It also mentions accessibility of consumer goods and accessories for general use and new buildings for disabled people. The Act prescribed that existing infrastructure be made accessible within five years of notification of the rules. However, a significant portion of existing infrastructure is still not accessible
A similar mandate is prescribed for public and private service providers to provide accessible services within two years of the notification of relevant rules.
These standards of accessibility by different ministries and departments were a work in progress for a long time. After the notification of the rules in 2017, these standards should have been prepared with urgency. However, it took almost six years for ministries such as sports, railways, health and home to formulate them.
For instance, since 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been in the process of notifying the Accessibility Standards for Television Programmes for Hearing Impaired under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules but still hasn’t been able to.
At the time of writing the article, the following guidelines are open for public consultation: accessibility standards for healthcare, accessibility standards and guidelines for the culture sector (by the Ministry of Culture) and accessibility standards for the sports sector (by the Department of Sports).
According to the Press Information Bureau, more accessibility guidelines by various ministries and departments are at different stages of progress. For instance, accessibility guidelines for higher education institutions and universities, bus terminals and bus stops, and by the department of water and sanitation are awaiting notification in the Gazette of India.
The notification on June 5 of such a standard of accessibility is a significant shift in terms of disability advocacy. However, their compliance will be a test for all departments and ministries.
Shashank Pandey is a lawyer and researcher.