The din and tussle of competitive politics can often drown out why a legislature exists in the first place. There are apprehensions that several crucial pending legislations will not be passed by Parliament in the ongoing winter session, so acrimonious is the standoff over demonetization. Happily, an exception has been made for ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014’ — passed unimously by Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. What is heartening is the urgency shown by ruling and opposition members to pass the bill, so that it moves on to Lok Sabha and is cleared by Friday next to be enshrined as law. The prayers of activists fighting for the rights of the differently-abled have been answered, for there was a real possibility that this long-awaited-for legislation would once again be put on the back-burner. Rights groups and NGOs have been taking out rallies in Delhi and state capitals, demanding its faster passage. After all, the law in India for the differently-abled as it stands now, is woefully idequate to tackle disability in its varied scope and complexity. Only seven disabilities — blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, mental retardation and mental illness — are identified in the present law, mely ‘The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995’. It also has no provision to punish those who discrimite against persons with disabilities. But across the world, there has been a sea change in attitudes towards the ‘disabled’ — that they only need charity, social protection and medical treatment. Rather, they are being viewed as the ‘differently-abled’, as persons who have rights like anybody else, as active members of society ‘capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on free and informed consent’. This changing mindset calls for appropriate rights-based legislation and strong institutiol framework.
The United tions took the lead in 2006 when its General Assembly adopted the Convention on Rights of the Persons with Disability (CRPD) and its optiol protocol. India signed and ratified the treaty in 2007. To comply with the UN treaty, the then UPA government in February 2014 introduced ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014’ in Rajya Sabha. After the change of guard at the Centre, the Bill was referred to the parliamentary standing committee on Social Justice and Empowerment. In its fil form now, the bill carries 119 amendments. Notably, the number of disabilities has been increased from 7 to 21, making it possible for a larger number of people eligible for rights on the grounds of disability. Cerebral palsy, autism, haemophilia, thalassaemia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and chronic neurological conditions, among others, have been included in the list. The addition of acid attacks is particularly welcome, considering the trauma of victims rendered faceless and deformed. Disability has been recognized as an evolving and dymic concept, with the Centre given the power to add more types of disabilities as it sees fit, and a Medical Board will be constituted to define disability. A tiol fund will be set up for welfare of the differently-abled; they will be given preference in government schemes. Barrier-free accessibility to public buildings, transport and polling stations has been made mandatory for them. Reservation for the differently-abled in jobs and educatiol institutions has been raised from 3 to 4 percent, though some MPs have called for a higher quota. Places of employment cannot be biased against persons with disabilities. Those who discrimite against the differently-abled will be punished with jail terms of at least six months to two years, along with fine ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 5 lakh. As per the 2011 census, the number of disabled persons in the country was pegged at 2.68 crore, which was 2.21 percent of the population. But only the families of persons with disabilities know what unremitting pain it is to see them struggling and being looked down upon. In the absence of State support and even a coherent policy, such families are terribly insecure about the future of the disabled individual. The new legislation is being hailed as a game-changer, despite being a long time coming. But the country, as a whole, needs to develop a new set of values to accord respect and dignity to the differently-abled.