Accessibility in higher education: The new Disability Act

It is well recognized that the one challenge faced by persons with disabilities in joining the mainstream in India is the difficulty in accessing higher education, a prerequisite to gainful employment. Despite the 1995 Disability Act making it mandatory for universities and colleges all over the country to provide accessible courses and campus facilities, very little has been done so far. Reasonable adjustments, modifications, aids and appliances for lectures, curricula, teaching materials, laboratories, libraries, examinations, classrooms and hostels etc have not been done seriously.

Many accessibility measures do not entail a large expenditure for the university or college, and yet are not commonly available today. For example, note takers and scribes ought to be provided for hearing and visually impaired students in the classroom, with a wheelchair accessible location and priority seating. Teaching materials should be made available in alternative formats such as Braille, books on tape, and on the internet, with adaptive computer technology such as screen readers.  Some appropriate modifications in examination and testing can be provided. A Disability Resource Unit should be set up to for providing assistance, information and awareness / training.  With some exceptions, most of these measures are not in place, pointing to the attitudinal barrier prevalent in our institutions of higher learning.

The new 2016 Disability Act was brought into force following India’s decision to ratify and join the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In the matter of higher education, the Act provides a strong set of measures to ensure that disabled students have access to colleges and universities. An increased reservation of 5% of seats has been provided. Educational institutions that are funded or recognized by the Government are mandated to ensure that buildings, campus and various facilities are accessible, and that necessary individualized support is provided to disabled students to maximize academic development and full inclusion.

The Government must now ensure that the laudatory objects of the new Act are implemented in letter and spirit and are not allowed to remain on paper. As required by the Act, it must immediately frame the rules laying down the standards of accessibility for colleges, universities and other higher educational institutions for persons with disabilities. Audits must be conducted of all colleges and universities vis-à-vis these standards and the gaps in accessibility be reported.  They must then apply for funds from the University Grants Commission and the Central and State Governments, and use the same to ensure that fully inclusive higher education is provided. The Disability Advisory Boards must be constituted under the new Act and monitor the entire process.


Case Spotlight – Disabled Rights Group Vs. Union of India

Supreme Court to hear issue of accessibility in higher education
In this petition currently being heard by the Supreme Court, the Disability Law Initiative has submitted similar arguments as outlined above. The case was prompted by the inability of a wheel chair bound girl to pursue her education in a law college because of inaccessible campus and classroom facilities.

The petition described the difficulties faced by the girl who was admitted to the law college of a reputed university. Requests for reasonable adjustments, such as modifications in the hostel bathroom and the availability of an assistant when required, were not agreed to by the university, whose position was that for such facilities, the girl would need to obtain accommodation off-campus. As a result, the girl and her family had to give up their aspirations and return to their hometown in frustration. The girl later had to pursue her higher education in a college located close to her town so that her family could provide her the necessary support.

When the matter had earlier come before the Court, DLI argued that the 1995 Disability Act mandated making campuses accessible. Also, the University Grants Commission had schemes to fund colleges for this purpose. The Court summoned the Bar Council of India, the apex body for legal education, which agreed that the concerned university and college had been remiss in fulfilling their obligations to the disabled students as required under the 1995 Act. Thereafter, BCI issued mandatory regulations to all law colleges to make their campuses and courses accessible.  DLI further argued that the matter did not stop there, as the matter raised the larger issue of accessible higher education all over India. Following the submissions made by DLI, the scope of the petition has been expanded to include all law colleges and institutes of higher education in India.