Inclusion is when the disabled are confident to assert their rights
Jeeja Ghosh,a teacher with cerebral palsy,was ordered to be deplaned by a SpiceJet pilot,Utprabh Tiwari. In the discrimination that it so blatantly reveals,the act recalls an incident in Montgomery,Alabama,in 1955. On December 1,Rosa Parks,an African-American woman,was asked to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person,in accordance with the racial segregation law applicable to public transportation system. She refused and her arrest led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott,which ended only when the US Supreme Court held that the law was unconstitutional. Unfortunately,the Jeeja Ghosh incident is nowhere near a similar tipping point in the Indian disability rights movement.
Disability rights activists have been campaigning for years for the government to take clear steps to recognise the full rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities (PWDs) and remove the attitudinal and environmental barriers that prevent their full and effective participation in society. However,progress has been painfully slow.
For the disability rights movement to succeed,government must be convinced that PWDs do indeed have the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. However,its actions appear to show that it has yet to make up its mind. The government has somewhere at the back of its mind realised that PWDs have different demands but is not wholly convinced of the legitimacy of these demands. A study of Article 15 of the Constitution highlights one of the possible reasons why it has not taken a stand. It states: The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion,race,caste,sex,place of birth or any of them. It is obvious that there is no apparent constitutional bar on discrimination on the grounds of disability. Admittedly,at the time the Constitution was drafted,disability rights were not the hot topic that they ares today. But bear in mind that the Constitution has been amended 96 times,including twice after India ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007,but no change has been made to prevent discrimination on the ground of disability. The constitutions of several countries,including Canada,South Africa and Sri Lanka,have specific non-discrimination provisions relating to persons with disabilities,but India has not followed suit. When the Constitution itself is unclear about where PWDs stand in relation to something as fundamental as non-discrimination,it is no wonder that the nation has not taken a definite stance on disability rights. This lack of clarity translates into actions in relation to PWDs.
Ghoshs incident is an example of the manifestation of this confusion. On May 1,2008,the Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued a document as part of the Civil Aviation Requirements (CARs),titled the Carriage by Air of Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility. One of its objectives was to establish regulations for the protection of and provision of assistance to disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility travelling by air in order to protect them against any form of discrimination and to ensure that they receive all possible assistance with due respect and dignity. As per Clause 4.1 of the CAR,no airline shall refuse to carry persons with disability or persons with reduced mobility. However the CAR does not prescribe the consequences of non-compliance by airlines. The CAR also requires all airlines to run sensitisation programmes for assisting passengers with disabilities. However,it is silent on the exact nature of sensitisation programmes,thereby leaving the scope of training to the discretion of individual airlines. As is evident from Jeeja Ghoshs experience,the training given,if any,is sorely inadequate. It can be safely assumed that if the pilot was properly sensitised on the requirements of PWDs and there were adverse consequences on non-compliance,airlines would comply with this document.
There are several other fundamental flaws with the CAR which stem from a lack of basic understanding of the very nature of disability. For example,it assumes that only persons with reduced mobility require assistance for air travel and does not provide for assistance to persons with hearing impairment,low vision,autism etc,who have no mobility problems.
This also shows the governments fallacious understanding that ramps and wheelchairs are the panacea to accessibility problems faced by persons with disabilities. One of the significant barriers that a visually impaired air passenger faces is that he or she cannot purchase a flight ticket online. This is because the ticketing website does not comply with internationally recognised,web accessibility guidelines intended to make them compatible with sound-based screen-reading computer software that persons with visual impairment use.
The remedy to the ills faced by persons with disabilities does not end with having inclusive laws and policies. It requires a shift in the thinking of society as a whole to the extent that society must accept PWDs as part of human diversity and humanity and as a result take steps to identify and eliminate all the barriers that they face.
There is also a good business case for airlines to treat their passengers well. On every flight that I have taken over the last three-four years,there are at least three of us who require assistance. In one instance,on a flight from Chennai to Delhi,there were 14 PWDs. Given this large traffic of PWDs,I wonder why no airline has launched a customised frequent-flyer programme for PWDs,after taking necessary steps to ensure the best assistance and accommodation infrastructure. Imagine that an airline provides movies with audio descriptions to blind passengers as part of in-flight entertainment,or curbside assistance so that we can travel independently. I,for one,would fly only that airline because I could really do with curbside assistance.
The first step to achieve true inclusion in all spheres,including aviation,is that the government must explicitly and unequivocally recognise the rights of persons with disabilities and have a dialogue with PWDs with the object of revising all laws and policies to ensure that they are disability-compliant. Strict disability-compliant laws,covering both public and private sector,will ensure that PWDs have the confidence to exercise their rights,knowing that violations will be dealt with swiftly and severely. As more PWDs come out and interact with society at large,attitudes will automatically change and businesses will see the financial benefit in customising products and services beyond that which is mandated by law. This will be the tipping point in the disability rights movement and perhaps Jeeja Ghosh is the catalyst that signals the beginning of Indias transformation.
The writer is an intellectual property lawyer and founder of Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy,Chennai