Many negatives mar Disability Bill report

The Parliamentary Standing Committee’s report on the Rights of Persons With Disability Bill, submitted before both houses of Parliament on May 7, 2015, has put in a commendable effort to improve the Bill in the larger interest of the community. Despite certain disturbing, regressive and negative aspects of its content, the committee’s intention throughout the process has been bonafide and above board.

A quick and cursory reading of the report leaves me convinced that the committee deserved better guidance from its officials, including those from the Department of the Empowerment of Persons With Disability. Its failure to grasp the progressive narrative of disability is evident from certain recommendations that equate disability with ailments such as diabetes (Type I), blood cancer, and kidney failure, or its proposal to alter the title of the Bill to make it sound more patronising.

Regrettably, certain disability groups have already begun a race to claim credit, with the assertion that the committee has accepted all their recommendations, which is contrary to the fact. The prevailing feeling is that the committee should have consulted all stakeholders.

The report, indeed, has several positive aspects. For instance, it favours defining “discrimination on the basis of disability” on the lines of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). It is also significant that the committee asks for recasting of Section 3.3 in the Bill as this would infringe on disabled persons’ fundamental rights in the wake of its mention that a person with disability should not be discriminated on the basis of his disability unless it is shown that the impugned act or omission is aimed to achieve “legitimate ends”.

By modifying the definition of ‘reasonable accommodation’ the committee also makes it incumbent on concerned authorities to provide decent accommodation to the maximum of its available resources. Other recommendations – enlarging “establishments” to include the private sector, modifying definition of “barriers” to recognise attitudinal and psychological barriers, including food, shelter and clothing in social security provisions, incorporating related information in school curriculum also deserves commendations.

However, it is unimaginable that the same report contains certain other recommendations that are abjectly negative, comprehensively prejudicial and outrageously erroneous.

For instance, the committee has recommended that the title of the proposed legislation should be changed from “Rights of Persons with Disability Act” to “Rights of Persons with Different Abilities Act” or “Rights of Persons with Special Abilities Act” with the justification that “Persons With Disability” is a derogatory expression and there is consensus amongst the stakeholders for such a change.

Glaring ignorance

This exposes the committee’s ignorance of the current and the progressive narrative espoused by the UNCRPD. Today, we believe that disability is part of the human diversity accentuated by the interface of impairment and various barriers that hinder participation on equal basis with others.

While the fact remains that no two living beings can be described uniformly able or uniformly disabled, why should we be labelled “differently abled” which conveys the message that I am not one with the rest of the community? This titling only harps on the differentiality and not the equality.

By bracketing disability with diabetes (Type 1), blood cancer etc, the committee is also sending out wrong signals that disability is some form of ailment or sickness. The purpose of the law is to deal with impairment-based disability and not ailment-based disability, which would catastrophically dilute the law. 

Though it recommends that two out of three members of national and state Commission for Persons with Disability should themselves be person with disability, it is silent about restricting the chairmanship of the commissions to persons with disability. In the case of other commissions, the chairmanship is restricted to the target group.

The report fails to challenge the government’s notion that restricting chairmanship of the commissions to persons with disability would be negative (since persons without disability have also contributed to the field). If this were to be true, then the government should also open up chairmanships of National Commission of Women, Scheduled Caste etc. since those from upper castes have also contributed to the field. It also does very little to strengthen the authority of the national commission, which could be left much weaker than it is.

(The writer is former Commissioner of Persons With Disability, Government of India)

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