In a judgment that could set a precedent for similar cases, the Gauhati High Court has chided and penalised a high-end private gym and the Assam government for discriminating against a disabled activist.
The judgment came last month on a writ petition filed in 2011 by Arman Ali, the then executive director of NGO Shishu Sarothi, who accused American fitness chain Gold’s Gym, which has its corporate office in Mumbai, of trying its best to dissuade him from enrolling in the gym.
Ali, who is currently the executive director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in Delhi, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
The court has directed both the gym and the state government to pay a penalty of Rs 50,000 each to the Guwahati-based NGO that rehabilitates children with disabilities.
Ali, while talking to indianexpress.com, said: “I was advised to join a gym as I had weight and stamina issues. While such places go out of their way to accommodate people, Gold’s Gym made it obvious that they did not want me to step inside their premises. I was apparently bad for their image as I am a viklaang (disabled).”
The gym put forth unrealistic demands from Ali like certificates from his doctors and a payment almost equal to their annual charges for a month’s service. He was also made to undergo hectic workouts and made a “spectacle” in front of staff and members of the gym. “I was humiliated and tortured; they treated me like an untouchable. I wasn’t ready to take this lying down,” Ali said.
Exercising the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, Ali moved court that took a considerate view of his case.
Supreme Court advocate Dharitry Phukan termed the verdict as “landmark”. “This is a big step forward for disability rights as a private party has been made to compensate a disabled person. Tomorrow if a disabled person is ill-treated or asked to leave a restaurant or any other place, this judgment will serve as a huge precedent.”
Ali added: “This is the first time that a private party has been held accountable in this manner. It is a wake-up call for the private sector, especially those responsible for public services. It’s mandatory for all sectors, from aviation to tourism, to make themselves accessible and provide equal opportunities to the disabled.”
While imposing a penalty on the gym, Justice Ujjal Bhuyan said the provisions of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (which has now replaced the 1995 Act) were applicable to both government and private facilities. Pulling up the state government, the court said it cannot evade responsibility and directed it to conduct awareness campaigns on disability rights.
Underlining that the petitioner’s case was just the tip of the iceberg, the court said people with disabilities face similar and even worse situations routinely.
Justice Bhuyan made observations on the general attitude of Indian society as well. ‘‘In the Indian context, such attitude has taken the form of crass insensitivity or apathy with latent prejudice against persons having different kinds of disabilities. Our popular culture is replete with instances where so-called ‘normal’ people make fun of persons having different kinds of disabilities…”