Photo: Neil Thomas/Unsplash
In 2006, India adopted its first National Policy on Disability. In line with its obligation to harmonise all of its laws and policies with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the Indian government constituted a committee in 2019, which finalised the draft policy in October 2021.
Of the committee’s 15 members, 11 were Delhi-based, raising the question of whether the exercise was to draft a ‘Delhi State Policy’ or a national policy that admitted the country’s diversity. After an uproar from the disability sector over the lack of representation, as well as lack of proper stakeholder consultation, the government placed the draft policy in the public domain last month. It is open for comments until July 9.
The policy is divided into 14 chapters. Some of the good points in the policy are:
- Ensuring disabled people are not called more than twice for disability certification to offices;
- Sign language interpreters at district hospitals;
- Training in disability rights as disability competencies (only for medical personnel);
- dedicated sports centres;
- Making cinema halls, museums and tourist places accessible to disabled people;
- Guidelines to modify personal vehicles;
- Maintaining data regarding crimes against disabled people;
- Indigenisation of motorised wheelchairs; and
- Maintaining year-wise data of employees with disabilities.
This said, the draft policy has quite a few misses.
- The drafting committee has missed an opportunity by not involving doctors with disabilities in its assessment of the issues.
- The policy lacks inter-ministerial coordination. It has no convergence with the Union health ministry’s recent draft on accessibility standards for healthcare. The accessibility requirements for goods and services are also lacking in the Bureau of Indian Standards Act and the Manual for Procurement of Goods 2017 of the Union finance ministry.
- The policy does not provide pathways to mandate health professionals to acquire the right medical diagnostic equipment.
- It does little to ensure that accessibility requirements are included in public procurement laws and policies for goods and services.
- The policy is silent on repealing all types of guardianship that affect deafblind people and persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.
- The policy does not specify a way forward to provide high-support needs; prohibit insurance-based discrimination; and a national suicide prevention strategy.
The chapter on Protection of the rights underscores why people with disabilities are not counted as vote bank, as he continuing demand to amend the constitution to include disability-based discrimination in articles 14 and 15 has not been considered. In addition, the exception to the anti-discrimination clause in section 3 (3) of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 has not been repealed. The non-recognition of lived experience as an expertise in the mission and visions of the policy highlights this point.
It’s good to see a chapter on disaster management but the pandemic showed how we are underprepared. The National Disaster Management Guidelines (Hospital safety) describe how hospitals are to act during a National Disaster. The section on triage contains merely a single page guidance and utilises the principle of “sickest first” which is inappropriate in public health emergencies. Opportunity is again missed in disaster risk reduction disability-inclusive.
The chapter on Accessibility showcases Accessible India Campaign (AIC) which was launched in 2015 but it keeps on shifting its goal post in terms of deliverables. Contrary to its name, it only includes select first or second tier cities and does not include villages where 69.9% of the disabled people reside in India.
The deadline to make all services accessible elapsed in 2019 and to make all public places accessible passed on June 15, 2022. Rather than taking strict action on non-compliance, the highest policy-making body (Central Advisory Board, CAB) on disability considered granting an extension to the States on accessibility. The reason for the failure of AIC is the absence of monitoring and assessment of accessibility indicators.
Countries like Canada (Audit of Safe Active Pedestrian Potential), Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Germany (300-question checklist ) are reviewing public spaces using measurable indicators for not only disability but other different beneficiary groups too. Accessibility is a universal design agenda and is directly linked to education, employment, independent living, and dignity.
In India, it’s not the paid government employees of the Public Works Department but disabled people from civil society who have been roped in as access auditors. Accessible tourism is not mentioned as a vertical in AIC but if states that rely on tourism ban visitors with disabilities, they risk losing an estimated 15 to 20% of the global market share.
The Sugamya Bharat App is relaunched but yet to make a public place accessible. The release of policy itself in inaccessible format highlights the intent.
The policy has a chapter on social protection measures, but it didn’t take into account the additional energy expenses that people with disabilities must pay as well as the side advantages of granting them access to energy. Many disabled people require electricity to operate assistive technology for independent living. Energy access for all is a commitment even in the United Nations Decade of Sustainable Energy for All (2014-2024).
However, disability is not mentioned a single time in the entire 17-page National Electricity Policy (2005), and 321-page National Electricity Plan (2018). Moreover, the Ministry of Power is not represented in the 66-member CAB as well as ministries mentioned in the Strengthening Institutional Mechanism chapter of the policy.
In Other Policy Measures, the policy laments meagre CSR funding in the disability sector but fails to advocate disaggregated data in the Union budget. The Habitat III (2016), and UN flagship report on disability and development (2018), adopted a disability inclusive New Urban Agenda, explicitly linking urban development with the principles of Universal Design, Agenda 2030 and accessibility for all. None of these are mentioned in the policy ignoring the fact that people with disabilities face multiple discriminations in their right to adequate housing and independent living (target 11.1, 11.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals).
The Smart Cities Mission and the AIC both were launched in 2015 but have yet to see convergence on the ground or in policy despite the fact that there are 39 cities common between both these missions. There is no mention of deinstitutionalisation strategy either. People with disabilities also have a long history of eco-ableism (discrimination towards the disabled in environmental and climate movements). Be it the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme not exempting disabled citizens initially, the Israel wheelchair-user that the power minister excluded from the COP26 climate talks or the straw-ban campaigns. The policy should have provided a path to disability focused representation in addressing SDG goal 13 on climate action but fails to do so.
The inaccessible format of the policy and the non-extension of the deadline for comments show the seriousness of the nodal ministry towards disability and human rights. The growing list of misses in the national policy on disability tilts the scales out of favour in making the rights real.