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M.S.J.E.’s Proposed Amendments to the Disability Act – a façade for Inclusion, Justice & Empowerment

Amendments to Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 have been long awaited now. The shortcomings of the Act were glaringly visible even before it came into force upon its notification on 7 February 1996, says Meenu Bhambhani.

An Amendment Committee, headed by Dr. Amita Dhanda, was appointed by the Government within three years of the notification of the Act. The Committee comprised of experts in the field of disability and senior leaders of disability sector like S.K. Rungta, Merry Barua, J.P. Gadkari, Aloka Guha, R. Ramachandran, Dr. D.K. Menon and Surrender Saini. This Committee submitted its report in 1999 itself and since then it has been gathering dust in the shelves of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (M.S.J.E.)

Having suddenly woken up from its slumber, M.S.J.E. has shown scant respect for the recommendations of this Committee and proposed its own set of amendments to the Disability Act. A large number of recommendations of the Amita Dhandha Committee still hold valid and had M.S.J.E. even bothered to accept those recommendations not only would that have given dignity to the Office of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities but would also have given recognition to the civil and political rights of disabled people in India.

M.S.J.E. has made a mockery of transparency and participation of stakeholders in the process of facilitating change and empowerment for disabled people. Instead of having state/regional level consultative workshops to invite suggestions from key stakeholders, M.S.J.E. once again, in a clandestine manner, put up its own set of proposed amendments on the website even before its own deadline of 31 July 2006! Mercifully, as a result of the pressure built by the disability sector, the deadline, as of today, has been extended by six months, that is up to 30 November 2006.

If one looks at some of these proposed amendments one would notice that they have failed to address the issues that have been the root cause of this Act remaining ineffective. One of the major criticisms of this Act has been that it lacks teeth and the definition of disability is very narrow since it leaves out several key categories out of its purview. The proposed amendments have failed to address even the most basic of its criticisms. While the definition of disability in the proposed amendments is a change from impairment based definition to the one that screens disability on the basis of activity limitation (used in developed countries). However, the categories continue to remain seven as they are in the Act at present. Amita Dhandha Committee had proposed inclusion of six other categories including Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Hemophilia, Multiple Disability, Thalassemia and Speech Impairment. Further it also recommended that for purposes of the chapter on education, disability also includes specific learning disability. Inclusion of Hemophilia and Thalassemia has been a long pending demand of the disability sector. And in fact disabling diseases like H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. should also have been included in the ambit of disability in the proposed amendments. But this has not been done.

Adding insult to the injury is the fact that not only the Office of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities not been strengthened but in fact the statutory recognition that was given to Central and State Coordination and Executive Committees has also been withdrawn. The implementation and monitoring of the PWD Act has been the weakest link. We need an Act that works and redresses the issues faced by persons with disabilities. The Commissioners office appears more helpless than the persons with the grievance. We need to strengthen the enforcing mechanisms. However the proposed amendment posted on the official website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment gives us an impression that they intend to dilute the composition of the Central and State Executive and Coordination Committees. The composition of these Committees will now be under the rules of the Act and in effect these powers will be in the hands of the administrative authorities, says C. Mahesh of Mobility India, Bangalore. The amendments, however, propose to constitute District Executive Committees a recommendation given by Amita Dhanda Committee but no other details regarding its constitution, term of office, functions, etc. are given.

Presently, the PWD Act focuses mainly on the Socio-Economic rights. The proposed amendments have really not addressed the Civil and Political rights which include right to life, right to political participation, right to marriage, home and family, legal capacity, access to justice, freedom of movement, right to privacy some of the articles that have already been included in the Draft U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Amita Dhandha Committees recommendations complied with the rights-based approach and addressed the concerns of all vulnerable groups like women with disabilities, children and persons with severe disabilities, destitute persons with disability, aged persons without carers, parents, etc. The concerns included social security, health, education, insurance, employment and accessibility.

The amendments proposed by M.S.J.E. address some of these concerns in a very superficial manner. Most of these concerns/issues have not been addressed at all. There is nothing for persons with severe disability, or women with disabilities, destitute and aged persons with disabilities. Some of the changes proposed by M.S.J.E. include:

1. Preparing a comprehensive and inclusive education scheme compatible with the special needs of students with disabilities by providing additional support and provisions in regular schools and institutions of higher and technical education, and also projects in the field of education and training in formal, non-formal, vocational, open learning system and other such sectors.

2. Carrying forward the vacancy to five years and in case suitable person belonging to the said class of disability is not available interchanging them among the classes of persons with disabilities who are entitled for reservation.

3. Vocational Rehabilitation Centres have been assigned the additional task of acting as Employment Exchanges.

4. The provision of amanuensis or any other alternative systems of taking examinations has been proposed for all such persons with disabilities who are unable to write the examination by themselves.

The change which was most desired by the disability sector was that more teeth be given to the Office of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities. Its rulings be made enforceable and non-violable and they be strengthened with some penalising powers. However, the only change that has been proposed is that this office should coordinate the work of Central Government Departments and agencies responsible for the implementation of the Act and receive reports from each of them at such intervals and in such form as may be prescribed. Coordinate with the States/ Union Territories/ Central Ministries regarding the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities.

Thus, these proposed amendments are nothing but a mere eye-wash. If the Ministry succeeds in going ahead with these amendments, disability sector will not get another opportunity to correct the wrongs of the present Act for a very long time to come. Unless, disability sector exercises substantial pressure to get the desired changes that have been envisioned in the Biwako Millennium Framework and in the Draft UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which would soon be ratified, the disabled people in India will always remain on the periphery of civil and political mainstream.