In India, persons with disabilities have often relied on human assistance for mobility and accessing public places and facilities. Helpers may guide the visually impaired, or provide physical support to those with orthopaedic disability. Persons with hearing impairment or intellectual disabilities need sign language interpreters and caretakers to accompany them. Now, with social distancing becoming the norm, such voluntary help will be more difficult to obtain. How then to facilitate for persons with disability a degree of independence in navigating their physical and social environment? Here are the Government’s accessibility obligations under the disability law, and the Supreme Court’s directions, which will pave the way.
Standards and Rules for Accessibility in the 2016 Disabilities Act (“the 2016 Act”)
The 2016 Act has some salutary provisions, which require both Government and private entities to make accessible a wide variety of public infrastructure, facilities and services they provide. Section 40 of the Act requires the Central Government to formulate rules laying down the standards for accessibility. The standards are to address the built environment (i.e. buildings, roads, bridges etc.), transportation systems including air, rail and bus transport, and information and communication services such as web sites, public documents and TV broadcasts. Significantly, the Government is to lay down the standards for not only Government entities but also private entities providing services to the public, including in areas such as educational and vocational, employment, shopping, banking, communication, and access to justice. Section 46 of the 2016 Act then mandates that both Government and private service providers provide services in accordance with these rules within two years of their notification.
SC directions on implementation of 2016 Act: Rajive Raturi vs. Union of India
In the case of Rajive Raturi vs. Union of India, on behalf of the petitioner the Human Rights Law Network and the Disability Law Initiative argued in the Supreme Court that the accessibility provisions in the 2016 Act and rules were not being implemented in letter and spirit by the Centre and the States. The Central Government presented to the Court their “Accessible India Campaign (AIC)”. However, the Court found that the tasks and activities planned and initiated by the Governments under AIC were not comprehensive enough and did not adhere to the time frames provided for in the 2016 Act. By a landmark judgment on 15th December 2017, the Court directed that the Central and State Governments come up with comprehensive and time bound implementation plans within 3 months for Government buildings, railways and airports, public and private bus transport services, and Government web sites and public documents. The Court was particularly concerned that sign Language Interpreters be trained and made available at public places.
Status of implementation of Disability Act provisions and SC directions
the Central Government notified the Disability Rules in June 2017, setting out the Harmonized Guidelines for the built environment, Guidelines for Indian Government Websites (GIGW), and e-Pub and OCR formats for public documents. Although three years have gone by, public and private service providers have yet to comply with these rules, which they were to do within two years of their notification. Further, the Central Government has not yet issued any rules for other public facilities and services offered by both Government and private entities such as air and rail transportation, schools, colleges, hospitals, malls, banks and the like.
It is fortunate, therefore, that the SC is monitoring the compliance of its directions in Rajive Raturi vs. Union of India. To begin with, it has ensured that precise tabular plans have been prepared by the Central and State Governments in the critical areas of accessibility, viz. built environment, transportation systems and information and communication services. These plans quantify the work to be done in each of these areas, track whether accessibility audits have been completed, and set out time frames for completion of accessibility work such as retrofitting of buildings, railway stations, airports and buses. The plans also state the number of Central and State Government websites and the dates by which they would be made accessible, as also the number of sign language interpreters required in public places and the dates by which they would be trained.
However, despite the plans being made, actual progress is minimal and many of the due dates have already passed. The Government’s claim that all airports and major railway stations have been made accessible is belied by the fact that no standards have yet been set out for air and rail transport – in fact, the Government’s own coordination committee noted that what has been done so far is minimal, and that the Government should consider using the IIT Rourkee template as the standard. Although public buildings, buses, web sites and public documents have been identified, most have yet to be made accessible. Adequate numbers of sign language interpreters are yet to be made available in public places.
What now needs to be done
- Central Government to promptly prepare comprehensive standards for accessibility for all facilities and services offered to the public by both public and private service providers, as required by Section 40. To include educational and vocational, employment, shopping, banking, communication, and access to justice services.
- All Government and private entities providing services to the public to comply with these standards within two years, as required by Section 46.
- Central and State Governments to forthwith implement the accessibility plans submitted to the SC and to adhere to the committed time frames.
- All identified Government buildings to be retrofitted according to the Harmonized Guidelines
- Airports and Railway stations to be made accessible according to the IIT Rourkee template
- Public and private buses to be made accessible according to the Harmonized Guidelines
- All the identified Government web sites and public documents to be enhanced to follow the GIGW and ePub/OCR standards
- The quantified number of sign language interpreters to be trained and made available by the Central and State Governments at all public places