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Standing up for the rights of the disabled

By Teresa Rehman

In the northeastern state of Assam, riddled with insurgency, the rights of disabled people get even lower priority than elsewhere in the country. Disability Law Unit-North East has come up with successful legal interventions to secure the rights of the disabled in the region and to spread awareness about the protections available under the law

Morigaon district school teacher Prafulla Pator

In Assam’s Morigaon district school teacher Prafulla Pator goes for his evening walks along the lanes of his village leaning on his crutch, attends panchayat meetings, and exudes a new-found confidence while working in his school. His speech problem, however, continues and he still cannot teach in the classroom. A well-known singer once, he continues to take active part in social and cultural functions in his locality. 

Things were not so smooth ten years ago. In 1999, Pator suffered a stroke which paralysed the left side of his body. This left him with a locomotor disability. The school authorities refused to let him work and he was denied any salary for six years. This was the same school he had founded in 1982. He was so badly off financially that he had to mortgage some land so that he and his joint family could survive. 

Pator’s village is located some 100 km from Assam’s capital city, Guwahati. He was the first person from his village to graduate from a college in Guwahati. He returned to his village and founded the Bishnu Rabha High School in 1982. So, quite naturally, his illness and the attitude of the school authorities left him shattered. He could not afford any advanced treatment and struggled for six years to meet the basic needs of his family.  

His story appeared in a local daily in May 2005 and it caught the attention of the Disability Law Unit-North East (DLU-NE) of Shishu Sarothi, an NGO, which intervened in his case. The DLU was set up in 2003 to fight for the rights of persons with disabilities in the region. Since 2006, it has been supported by Light for the World, Austria. The unit advocates policy change, litigation and awareness among stakeholders. 

DLU helped Pator to file a case in the Guwahati High Court to fight for his rights under the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which states that no government employee acquiring a disability during service shall be removed from service or reduced in rank. As a person with 50% disability, Pator falls well within the ambit of this Act.  

In a landmark judgment in May 2006, the Guwahati High Court directed that Pator be reinstated and given full back wages with 6% interest. “This judgment was our first success story. We followed up his case with the education commissioner and made sure he got his compensation,” says Anju Talukdar, lawyer and co-ordinator of the unit. 

Pator’s case was a pathbreaker and had a ripple effect. It inspired others to approach DLU-NE to fight for their rights. An engineering graduate from Jorhat Engineering College today, Irshad Alam filed a case with the help of DLU-NE after he was denied admission on the basis of being ‘medically unfit’.  

Nripendra Nath Mahanta was an employee of the Life Insurance Corporation of India when he lost his vision due to a brain tumour. He was due for a promotion but was not allowed to join work. He approached the DLU which approached the Guwahati High Court which issued a notice to LIC in July 2007. Within one month, Mahanta was allowed back at work and was also promoted to branch manager. 

The rights of the disabled are generally ignored in a region like the northeast of India which is plagued by conflict and violence. But the DLU-NE has been doing commendable work in ensuring that the basic rights of the disabled are not violated due to ignorance and lack of legal support.  

Armaan Ali, former co-ordinator of DLU-NE, who is himself physically challenged, says that disability advocacy is still regarded as a charity and welfare measure. In 2006 he had filed a PIL and asked for and obtained a stay on the Assam Civil Services Examination. The advertisement for the exam had contained reservations for everybody except the disabled. As per the law, a minimum of 3% of seats have to be reserved for the disabled. The Assam Public Services Commission had to re-advertise with the required provision. 

In another intervention, DLU-NE filed a case for Duleswar Nath who works for the Central Reserve Police Force as a havaldar. He has three daughters all of whom have cerebral palsy. He was transferred to Tripura, but argued that it would be difficult for him to get the special needs of his children attended to there. The Guwahati High Court suspended the transfer and he was posted close to Guwahati.  

DLU-NE disseminates information on issues of the disabled and organises sensitisation workshops for lawyers and NGOs. It has also tried to monitor the accessibility of polling booths in Arunachal Pradesh and pointed out that job advertisements in Meghalaya’s North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEGRIMS) did not reserve seats for the disabled.  

DLU’s Talukdar says that of all kinds of human rights, rights of the disabled are the most neglected in the northeast region. Physical barriers in the environment together with social discrimination limit and often extinguish opportunities for disabled people to work and lead a normal life. There is little documentation of the extent of disability in the region. There are even differences on how disability is defined and therefore on the numbers of disabled people.   

India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2008 and is therefore obliged to amend its laws in tune with the provisions of the Convention. Parties to the Convention are required to promote, protect and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities and ensure that they enjoy full equality under the law.  

Over the last two decades, the protection of persons with disabilities was made mandatory with the passing of certain legislations like the Persons with Disabilities Act (1995), the Mental Health Act (1987), the Rehabilitation Council of India Act (1992), the National Trust Act (1999), and the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (2006). The National Human Rights Commission in collaboration with Human Rights Law Network has come out with a publication titled Handbook on Employment for Persons with Disabilities in Government of India.  

The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) has come out with a Corporate Code on Disability for voluntary adoption by companies, which would help them be recognised for their social responsibility and commitment. 

Meghalaya has been very active in creating awareness, especially in rural areas, through DLU-NE’s partner organisation Bethany Society. One of the major interventions by Bethany Society is the formation of Disabled Persons Organisation (DPO) in every district and block level. These DLOs have come together and formed the Association of Challenged People, Meghalaya. DLU-NE provides technical and legal aid to these DLOs.  

Carmo Noronha, director of Bethany Society says, “We have been able to put a lot of pressure on the government in order to ensure that at least some of the rights of disabled persons are looked at. For instance, reservation in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, in higher education, and 3% reservation in all poverty alleviation schemes including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act schemes.” Bethany Society has also drafted a policy on disability for Meghalaya state. 

In a region like the northeast, where the rights of the disabled are eclipsed by other pertinent issues of violence and insurgency, creating awareness of the rights of the disabled is a long-drawn-out process. Talukdar adds, “We can start with education and access which can change things on the ground. There are reservations and employment in government services but not enough qualified applicants.”  

Most often, due to large-scale ignorance of the law among disabled people, bureaucrats distort the laws to suit their own ends. Talukdar cites an example. In 2008, the Director of Medical Education, Assam, issued a notice for admission to paramedical courses. In order to fulfil the mandatory 3% disability quota, the definition of disability was changed to include only ‘persons with locomotor disability of the lower limbs and having 50-70% disability.’  

Under the Persons with Disabilities Act, 'person with disability' means a person having 40% or more blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, including cerebral palsy, mental retardation and mental illness. “This was a mockery of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 and the Constitution of India,” Talukdar says. 

The hilly terrain in most parts of the region makes life even more difficult for people with disabilities. For instance, Chaing Puii, secretary of the Spastic Society of Mizoram, says that most disabled people are denied their basic right to vote as polling booths are not accessible. “Acquiring motorised wheelchairs for everyone is not a feasible idea for economic reasons and most often disabled people remain confined to their homes. Parents are often reluctant to bring out their children and many are confined to their homes,” adds Puii.  

The Spastic Society, which is a partner organisation of DLU-NE, is working on community-based rehabilitation programmes in 30 villages of Mizoram.

  Hopefully, organisations like DLU-NE will be able to generate awareness of legislations on disability and overcome impediments like social exclusion, poverty, and accessibility which make the disabled an ‘invisible minority’.  

(Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India) 

Infochange News & Features, January 2010