A sensitive approach

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The Supreme Court direction in the recent past to the central and state government to provide full access to public facilities including the buildings and transport within a stipulated timeframe is a welcome step. In fact, instead of recognizing the rights of the disabled persons, the SC has simply passed the directions so that all the facilities are available to them with modifications to be carried by the governments at the centre and the states. It is a public knowledge that majority of the facilities created by the public sector organizations are built only for the able-bodied people and not by the disabled or specially-abled persons across the country. It has to be borne in mind that people with a disabilities form 2.21 percent of India’s population as per the census figures available for 2011. The speciallyabled persons have had a law for more than two decades to enable their full participation in society, but successive governments have done little to realise those guarantees. It is only in the recent past that in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition filed by a visually handicapped activist, the court has issued a series of orders: that all government buildings should be made accessible by June 2019; half of all government buildings in the capital cities should meet accessibility norms by December this year; the Railways should present a report in three months from December 15 on implementing station facilities; 10 percent of government public transport must be fully accessible by March 2018; and advisory boards should be formed by the states and Union Territories in three months. The Supreme Court’s directions should be welcomed by the government and service providers as an opportunity to steer policy and practice towards a universal and humane system. For pretty long time, planners and designers have built infrastructure for use only by ablebodied individuals, ignoring the aspirations of those with disabilities, and the letter of the law. For making all these facilities accessible to the disabled population, a transformation requires governments to also harness the power of newer technologies. The new technologies can make the task of the centre and states easier for creating facilities for such persons. In some of the areas within India, the technology enables targeted provision of services for the disabled persons. It is practically feasible, for instance, to aggregate the travel requirements of disabled people with the help of information technology and smartphones, and provide affordable shared transport using accessible vehicles. With the centre laying more emphasis on smart cities and upgraded urban facilities, such schemes should be given the highest priority and start-up ideas roped in. Railway stations and access to train carriages continue to pose hurdles for not just the disabled, but even elderly passengers. The Indian Railways should embark on an urgent programme to retrofit all stations, and try simple solutions such as portable step ladders to help board and exit trains, since level boarding is not possible in most places. Cost is not the barrier to improving facilities; what is in short supply is the political will to change the design of public facilities and stick to professional codes. The Supreme Court had in a 1998 order on a petition seeking air travel concession, said that while cost was a consideration, the true spirit and purpose of the law could not be ignored. At present India, which is richer than it was then, and has passed a new law in 2016 to strengthen the rights of the disabled, should demonstrate the will to implement it. Apart from this, the demand of the disabled persons for reservation of some of the jobs suited to them also needs due consideration by the government. At no point, the disabled persons should be made to feel that they are not a part of the society and are unwanted in any sphere. A sensitive approach is the best way to deal with their problems and provide a ready solution.