So there are people on crutches and wheelchairs at a candlelight vigil, asking for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill to be passed. Maybe you ignored it, and maybe rolled your eyes at the prospect of “more reservations”, because that’s all you hear anyone talking about.
Now, there is talk in the media about how the Disabilities Bill is bad, violative of some international laws and human rights, and maybe you wondered why there was a volte face. In any case, when “normal people” in India are suffering so much, how much would the government be able to do for people with disabilities anyway?
You are part of the 85% or so of the Indian population who are persons without disabilities. You might also be, relatively, a privileged person, since you are reading this article, which is in English and which you found on the internet, most likely through social media. Sure, there is a link between disability and poverty; so most persons with disabilities in India hover around the poverty line.
This is not, however, why you should care about the Disabilities Bill. You should care about it, because it will, without a doubt, affect you, even if not directly.
The Disabilities Bill is perhaps yet another legislation aimed at the protection and empowerment of yet another minority group. Unlike many other minority groups, however, membership to the minority of persons with disabilities is always open. And unlike other minority groups which do have open membership, however, membership to this minority is rarely – if ever – out of choice.
You finish reading this article, walk out of your office and, in an unfortunate turn of events, get hit by a bus. You are unable to walk without assistive devices. You find yourself slowly excluded from your friend circles since you cannot join them on the usual Saturday night dinner-drinks-and-a-film plans because most restaurants, bars and theatres are not disabled-friendly, and therefore inaccessible, and it is too embarrassing for you to ask friends or completely untrained staff members for help all the time. You try to see if there is some way to enforce these private players to provide ramps and other means of access, but the law only requires government establishments to be accessible to the disabled.
You have a child who is diagnosed with autism. Like all parents, you believe your child has promise despite the “unfortunate” label of disability, and you want her to go to a regular school and interact with other children, and be given the additional support she needs. The Right to Education Act says children have a right to inclusive education, doesn’t it? Your child has started going to the neighbourhood school and you perceive that she actually enjoys, and is quite insistent, on her daily routine. A few weeks later, you receive a strange bureaucratic order of sorts, declaring that it has been deemed “necessary” that your child goes to a special school. You are appalled and go to a lawyer. You find, much to your horror, that this exclusion is valid in the law.
Your parents are old, and you work abroad. Your mother is losing her eyesight and your father, his hearing, and both disabilities are quite severe. Since everything is so inaccessible, they have their fair share of mishaps, which their maid notices. She narrates this story to many people, and one self-appointed “social worker”, purportedly acting on their behalf, goes to an assessment board with an application saying your parents are people with “high support needs” since they need intensive support for daily activities and to access facilities, and are thus unable to live on their own.
Accordingly, because they are so vulnerable to the inaccessible environment around them, the board’s idea of “high support” is to move them into an institution for the elderly disabled. You come back in a frantic hurry. You find your parents do not have a right to insist on what living arrangements they want, and that India has a law which allows an assessment board to determine the support they require without even consulting them, let alone you. Luckily, your parents are ultimately released, quite crudely, into your “custody”.
Your best friend, who has been coping with mental health issues for a while, has finally been diagnosed with bipolar depression. You know he has his moments of vulnerability, but for the most part, knows how to take care of himself, much like everyone else. His relatives disagree and, armed with medical certificates from doctors certifying he is “of unsound mind”, approach a court to have one of themselves appointed as guardian.
The atmosphere of the court and the sheer frustration of the process triggers your friend to have an episode in court, and the court accordingly holds that he is “incapable of taking legally binding decisions” for himself. His bank accounts, assets – everything – is taken away from him and solely managed by a guardian appointed from amongst his relatives, with less than noble intentions. They are taking advantage of him, and he has no recourse because a court has actually certified that he is of unsound mind.
His guardian is now selling off a flat that belongs to him, though your friend wants to hold on to it. You look at the law that governs the guardianship, and find that there is no way to appeal the appointment of a guardian. There is a promising section which says the guardianship is limited, and that the process should be consultative between the guardian and the person. But if there is a clash of opinion, you find that there is no way to address this. Your friend is helpless.
These aren’t conjectures – they are borne out of extremely real scenarios and how they would play out against the lacunas in the law. And if we had a law that was entirely compliant with the UNCRPD, all of these situations would have happy endings. And even if we have to wait, we are still hoping for one.
Amba Salelkar is a lawyer, who moved into disability law and policy after six years in criminal litigation. She works with the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability and Policy. She tweets @mumbaicentral.