A law that must not remain on paper

The differently-abled do not need tears and sympathy, but an understanding of their special requirements.

A tragedy awaits the builders. If the Disabilities Bill, passed recently in the Lok Sabha, becomes active, they face jail term and a hefty fine “for discriminating against differently-abled people.”

Again, there may be no builders left then, since they are all offenders in one way or the other. Whether it is a mall, bank, hospital or school, buildings in this country are built specifically for the young, the agile and the able.

Builders of roads, walking areas and highways who assume that their users are all physically fit and able to negotiate hurdles, await the same fate. Civic authorities, with the help of so called architects, plan and build these public roads with no proper access to buildings.

There are no ramps for wheelchair-bound people to pull themselves up, no railings to climb stairs for others. In short, people who cannot do either of these have no business to be outdoors, according to the planners of public spaces.

I heard a conversation recently between a differently-abled woman and the priest at a temple. She asked him whether the temple authorities could provide railings for those who could not climb the steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum without support.

The priest kindly suggested whether it would not be simpler to pray at home. His answer characterised the general attitude to differently-abled people in this country.

If you find the roads unfriendly or the pavements more so, if you cannot enter a bank or a hospital without risking your limbs or life, if you can enjoy some entertainment only if you are ready to face challenges, if you have to travel long distances without the barest facilities, you must learn to forego all these activities and stay safely within the walls of your home. But this is easier said than done.

According to official statistics, the number of citizens over the age of 60 in this country has increased from 7.6 crore to 10.3 crore during the last 15 years. Women form 60% of this number, and women over 60 nearly 6%. If a good majority of the 60-plus women are also single, disabled and forced to fend for themselves, one can imagine their social challenges even while performing ordinary tasks like banking, marketing or visiting doctors and hospitals.

The passage of the Disabilities Bill has not come a day too soon for them. It will enhance the rights of differently-abled people by giving effect to the United Nations Convention on the same subject.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in 2007 by the UN to ensure that “any person who is unable to ensure the necessities of a normal individual or social life as a result of some mental or physical deficiency” should be enabled to lead a normal life with dignity and self-respect.

In fact, the UN Convention stresses the need to ensure a citizen’s right to human dignity which includes a right to all social activities without any hindrance. The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons became effective in 1975 and it is mandatory that every country should follow its tenets.

Fundamental rights

Our own Constitution guarantees certain fundamental rights to disabled citizens, such as “right to justice, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”. Despite all these rights, the differently-abled get a raw deal for the simple reason that laws that govern these rights are rarely implemented.

Passing a Bill in Parliament is one thing and enforcing an Act is another. We are very efficient in framing laws but fall short when it comes to implementing them. If at all they are implemented, it becomes a form of tokenism. For example, when the Constitution demands equality in employment opportunities, a small percentage of visually impaired or hearing impaired people are given jobs just to be on the right side of the law.

But, caring for the disabled is not restricted to employment opportunities alone. It means giving them proper facilities to lead as near normal lives as possible which will guarantee not only employment but other benefits as well. They could become entrepreneurs or find creative jobs that would make them independent. They may be artists or writers or chefs or manual workers. They need the space and the facilities to function normally like others.

Unless the ethos of the country undergoes a sea change to embrace all its citizens on equal terms, the disabled will never be able to live a life of independence and dignity. They do not need tears and sympathy. What they need is an understanding of their special requirements. Will the latest Bill satisfy this need?

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