Consciousness about disability is seldom on display in the design of everyday facilities in Indian cities. A very basic sense of what is needed seems to be dawning on planners and policy-makers in recent times, but that is far from adequate. A small contribution to this dawning good sense is made by a slight improvement in the consciousness of rights. Hence there is greater use of the relevant legislation, more frequent exchanges in the courtroom, all of which help make the problems of the disabled a subject of discussion. The rights, though, have been encoded only in the last decade. The Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act was enacted after India became a signatory to the Asia-Pacific conference in Beijing in 1992. It is according to provisions of this law that the Supreme Court has directed that all government and government-aided institutions shall reserve 3 per cent of their seats for the admission of disabled persons. The Supreme Court’s direction is the result of an appeal against the Kerala high court’s ruling that Section 39 of the act, under which reservation was being sought, applied only to employment and not to admission in educational institutions.
The principle upon which the Supreme Court has based its reading of the relevant provisions is unquestionably right-minded. India agreed, by virtue of the Beijing proclamation, upon the “full participation and equality of people with disabilities”. But words and technicalities are one thing, bringing about change quite another. The level of general education and understanding about disability is so low that it is better deemed non-existent. There is a whole range of disability, from various physical problems to mental ones, a fact that is conveniently obscured by the use of a blanket term. Each type of disability needs certain special civic amenities if disabled persons are to participate in everyday activities. Even more than money, it is expert attention and planning, imagination and sensitivity, that are needed. The funds can then be allotted usefully. There is also the question of mindset, not just of the planners and administrators, but also of the general public. Awareness raising in this sphere has a long way to go, and it is not those entrusted with the care of disabled persons who should alone be made responsible for educating people. In this context, the wisdom of the court verdict seems strangely out of place. Unless all other changes are also made, the 3 per cent reservation will seem mere tokenism at best.