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Ira Singhal And The Disabilities Of The Government, Society

11/07/2015 8:35 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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"The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision." -- Helen Keller

Recently, Ira Singhal gained the distinction of being the first differently-abled woman (she has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine) to top the UPSC exams. In 2010 too, she had cleared the examination but was refused a posting because of her disability, with authorities citing her "inability to push, pull and lift" as a reason. She moved the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and won the case. She had to undergo tests, submit medical certificates and prove that she was capable of doing jobs entrusted to her in the IRS.

The tussle between government agencies and disabled people goes long back. In National Federation of Blind v. Union Public Service Commission AIR 1993 SC 1916, petitioners sought a writ in the nature of mandamus directing the Union of India and the UPSC to permit blind candidates to compete for the IAS and allied services and to provide them the option of writing the civil services examination either in Braille or with the help of a scribe. Their contention was upheld as the court noted that visually handicapped persons can perform the jobs entrusted to them with as much competence as anyone else.

"The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 is robed in the guise of "rights granting" but in actuality it limits the definition of disability strictly and imposes no duty on private actors."

The disabled have been marginalised since time immemorial. This is the most dangerous form of oppression as a whole category of people are removed from useful social and economic participation. They are seen as dependents which deprives them of their right to autonomy and freedom to make choices. However, more than them it is the Indian government as well as society who "suffer" from the disability of thought, sensitivity, sensibility and vision.

Though India has signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), it has not signed the Optional Protocol to it. The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 is robed in the guise of "rights granting" but in actuality it limits the definition of disability strictly and imposes no duty on private actors. Its various provisions are perceived extremely strictly by the judiciary. This is pernicious to the disabled populace as any law which actually guarantees rights should receive a liberal interpretation so as to benefit the marginalised sections. In neurological conditions and mental illnesses it is extremely difficult to certify that a person suffers from 40% of any disability. Furthermore, rather than specify neurological and mental illnesses, the Act contains borderline derogatory terms like "mental disorder" (Section 2 (q) of the Act).

The inaction of the Chief Commissioner (constituted by the Central Government under Section 57(1) of the Act) during her ordeal poses an interesting question. As per Section 58(c) of the Act, the Chief Commissioner shall take steps to safeguard the rights and facilities made available to persons with disabilities. Furthermore, according to Section 59(a) the Chief Commissioner may of his own motion or on the application of any aggrieved person look into complaints pertaining to matters relating to the deprivation of rights of persons with disabilities. Singhal may have won her battle, but the government's conduct deserves only castigation as it makes a mockery of Article 17 (right to respect for physical and mental integrity) and Article 27 (non-discrimination in employment and providing favourable conditions of work) of the CRPD. It is also clear that her ordeal and this newfound focus on disability rights would have never come to light had she not topped the UPSC exams.

"Leave alone successive governments, society's stance towards the disabled spans the spectrum from ostracisation and discrimination to outright persecution. "

The Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability's analysis of this year's budget points to extremely disturbing facts. The government has increased the amount of tax exemption for the disabled, but since 64% of the total working age population is not employed, they derive no benefit from this. There has been no allocation to the National Mental Health Programme, which is the only scheme that has components for community mental health. Meanwhile, no information is available on the promises made for the disabled in last year's budget. Leave alone successive governments, society's stance towards the disabled spans the spectrum from ostracisation and discrimination to outright persecution. Complete inclusion, acceptance and participation in social, political and cultural life for the disabled remain a mirage. In India, this prejudice parades as a tradition.

Laws are made by the majority, does not include the disabled. This is quite evident in the language of the law and the practices and stereotypes that our country so dearly adheres to.

"Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent on things that matter. -- Martin Luther King"

I cannot remain silent on such everyday assaults on the inherent dignity of the disabled by two known assailants --the government and society. Ira Singhal has broken the long-standing stereotype that the disabled are incompetent people, meant to be shunned and ostracised. Many more have combated and continue to combat such stereotypes daily. I ask, for how long will such disabled governance, attitudes and mindset dominate the country?

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