Securing full Participation of persons with disabilities in all walks of life

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    What is common between Beethoven, Milton, Surdas, and Stephen Hawking? They were all persons with different abilities who have proved to the world that their contribution is second to none. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 asserts that all human beings are born free, equal in dignity and rights. Various rights contained in our Constitution and International Human Rights Law belong to all persons regardless of any distinctions based on sex, race and so on and so forth including whether he or she is a person with disability or not. However, in reality there are significant physical, mental and attitudinal barriers which prevent Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) from enjoying all rights at par with others.                     

    How many of our schools, colleges, universities, banks, post offices, hospitals, Government offices and other buildings of public use are accessible to persons with disabilities? For many persons, access connotes construction of ramps and disabled-friendly toilets. However, it is important to note that for visually challenged persons, access implies availability of signages in Braille, audio books etc. while for persons with hearing challenges, it means availability of sign language interpreters. In practice, we still have a long way to go with regard to access and it hampers full participation of PWDs in all walks of society. As a result of the various barriers, the persons with disabilities are marginalised and the scope of their operation is considerably restricted.                                                      

    Indeed, there is a need to go beyond traditional perception which views persons with disabilities as objects of pity, charity who require to be helped. Instead, they are holders of rights and the society needs to recognise their different abilities and provide an enabling environment for their full participation in all walks of life.

    Legislative Initiatives                                                                                                           

    The Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 was enacted by the Parliament on December 12, 1995. This landmark legislation deals with seven disabilities and provides the legal basis of an inclusive society wherein the role of Central and State Governments is clearly delineated. The Act covers prevention and early detection of disabilities, early intervention, education, employment and vocational training, reservation of jobs in the State sector, non-discrimination, research and manpower development and development of barrier-free environment.  It asserted that people with disabilities had the right to equal opportunities and full participation and that these rights would be protected by the law. In addition to this Act, the other three legislations include the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999, the Rehabilitation Council of India Act 1992, and the Mental Health Act 1987. The Government has also adopted the National Policy on Disability in February 2006.                                      

    Latest in the list is the ratification by the Government of the United Nations on Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 1 October 2007. It is a clear affirmation of its intention to protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities. The Convention marks a ‘paradigm shift’ in attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. They are not viewed as “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection; rather as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.

    Article 1 of the Convention states that ‘Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’. As can be seen, the emphasis in this Convention is not so much on disability per se but the focus is on barriers which hinder the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society on equal basis with others. Article 33 of the Convention requires the Government to establish National focal points and coordination mechanisms within Governments and also requires the National Human Rights Institutions to monitor the implementation of the Act.

    In pursuance, the National Human Rights Commission has taken up its monitoring role and has conducted four regional workshops during this year for the North, East, West and Southern Regions in which senior officials of the State Governments, Central Government, disabled persons themselves and their representative organisations participated. Based on these Workshops, detailed recommendations have been made by it to authorities’ concerned covering among other things, education, employment, services and access of persons with disabilities. The last Workshop for the North Eastern Region is scheduled in December 2008.

    Right to Work                                                                                                                       

    The right to work not only empowers persons with disability and protects their dignity and equality but it is also critical to their full inclusion and participation in society. It constitutes an important element of their economic security. The realization of right to adequate standard of living for persons with disabilities, which includes rights to adequate food, shelter, clothing and social services, is impossible without gainful employment for persons with disabilities.  The sad reality is that in many countries, persons with disabilities have not been fully integrated into the  labour market and the lack of economic participation has significant impact on the lives of persons with disabilities.                                                                                                          According to a Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2002, about 26% of persons with disabilities were employed. In Government Sector, the Persons with Disabilities Act stipulates 3 % reservation in employment as well as in poverty alleviation schemes. In contrast, employment of persons with disabilities in private sector and in MNCs is miniscule.                                                          

    Fiscal Incentives                                                                                                       

    The Government of India recently approved an ambitious Rs. 1800 crore Scheme which seeks to create one lakh jobs per annum for persons with disabilities during the 11th Five Year Plan. Under the Scheme, the employees with disabilities covered under the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and full Participation) Act, 1995 and the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999 and working in the private sector, with monthly wage up to Rs.25000/- per month would be covered. The scheme would be applicable to all the employees with disabilities, who are appointed on or after April 1, 2008. The Government will directly provide employer’s contribution for the schemes covered under the Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 and the Employees State Insurance Act, 1948.This will be done in respect of employees for a maximum period of three years.This Scheme is significant as the jobs in the Government sector have been shrinking. What is required is popularising this Scheme among private sector enterprises and persons with disabilities and organisations working for them. The spreading of awareness of this Scheme widely will enable many people to take advantage of it.

    Challenges for the Future                

    There is a need to strictly enforce existing legislations for persons with disabilities as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  There is a need, among other things, for training, capacity building, awareness raising and need to mainstream disability in all development activities. In this process, there is a need to include persons with disabilities in all stages of implementation, and build capacity of organizations of persons with disabilities to do so. In addition, there is a need to harmonize domestic laws in the light of progressive provisions of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Securing all rights of persons with disabilities in practice will alone lead to their empowerment and creation of an inclusive society.

     Writer:  Y.S.R. Murthy Director (Research), National Human Rights Commission, Delhi