Disability, in simple terms, can be defined as some form of inability in an individual to carry out the normal activities in his day-to-day life as carried out by normal human beings.
Disability is popularly defined in medical connotations to mean restriction or lack of ability (resulting from an impairment) to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. It can include a physical, biological or intellectual impairment.
The largest population of disabled in the world resides in India. About 600 million in the world fall in this category with two-thirds of them in developing countries.
The disabled have always been subjects of discrimination in the society and looked at as objects of pity and therefore, remained socially excluded.
In India, and internationally, a comprehensive legal framework has been in existence for the betterment of the lives of the disabled people.
Causes of Disability
Disability can be the outcome of a wide range of causes. It can be acquired through diseases, can be hereditary or result of birth defects.
Other causes include wars or other armed conflicts, unhygienic conditions of living, poverty, geographical isolation, natural disasters, malnutrition etc. Thus, causes of disability go beyond mere medical conditions. For example, on account of malnutrition, incidence of anemia among expectant and nursing mothers between the age group of 15-19 is highest in India in the SAARC region. Also micro-nutrient deficiencies can lead to diseases like blindness, beri-beri, scurvy etc.
In India, 90 per cent of the workforce is engaged in the unorganized work sector and works in areas prone to high range of accidents without adequate safeguards and which lead to deterioration of their health. Examples include: leather industries, stone quarrying, diamond-cutting, hand embroidery, etc.
Even violent crimes, for instance, the Bhagalpur blinding case wherein a number of suspects were blinded with acid in their eyes by officers can lead to disability of a permanent nature.
The Legal Framework in India
India witnessed a sort of disability movement in the 1970s wherein a rights-based approach legislation to exclusively address the issues of the disabled was raised.
On account of this, 1995 saw the coming into force of The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act with the objective of protecting and promoting economic and social rights of disabled people.
The Act entrusted responsibilities to Government at all levels. The Act established a multi-sector model, both at the Central and State level for the effective functioning and execution of the Act.
A Central Coordination Committee was sought to be established at the national level with its state counterpart being The State Coordination Committee that would be comprised of ministers from various departments. The Committees would be the focal points on disability matters. Their function is to review and coordinate such matters and also develop a national policy in this regard. They are also to advise the Government at their respective levels and monitor and evaluate the impact of their actions as well as that of the Act.
The Act has provisions pertaining to both children and adults and covers the areas of education, work, housing, mobility and public assistance.
Other laws pertaining to disability in India include:
The Mental Health Act, 1947
Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992
National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mentally Retarded and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999
Even the Constitution of India envisages through its various provisions, including the Preamble of a State that respects the disabled by bestowing upon them civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights.
The 'soft law' instruments adopted within the framework of the UN which focus specifically on disability include:
World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons (1982), The Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (1993), Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975), Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons (1971), Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care (1991), Proclamation of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region, (1993) and Tallinn Guidelines for Action on Human Resources Development in the Field of Disability.
The UN had even declared 1981 as the International Year for Disabled Persons. 1983-1992 was even declared the UN Decade of Disabled Persons.
India had signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability in the year 2007 which mandated countries to enact their legislation in similar lines.
The Act has seen weak implementation despite being comprehensive. To some extent, it has been successful in securing a shift from disability being considered as an individual issue to that which concerns the entire society. However, the impact has been limited a few pockets of urban India only. Even today, family is considered to be primarily responsible in looking after people with disability and the role of the State is substantially minimal and has been limited to providing rights in the form of legislation. Over the decades, it can be seen that in the First Five Year Plans, the role of the Government in the disability sector was confined to financial help to charitable institutions to deliver basic services. On doing so, the Government denied its role as a custodian of the rights of its citizens.
However, the Government today is playing an active role in promoting and protecting the interests of this vulnerable section of the society.
In fact, a Bill in this regard has been pending since 2014. Titled "Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014, it seeks to replace the Act of 1995. The Bill has expanded disability conditions to 19 from the previous 7. It has penal provisions to be applied against violators. For persons with 40% disability, it seeks to provide them with reservation in education, employment, preference in government schemes etc.
It also seeks to establish a National Commission for Persons with Disability in the lines of similar Commission already established for women and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
However, a serious lacunae of this Commission is the conferment of only recommendatory powers and no punitive power.
Thus, the Government must consider all aspects of the Bill before it is accorded assent.