Fundamental and Inalienable Right of Disabled Persons to Possess Assistive Devices
Vikas Gupta, University of Delhi
Image License: Siegfried Hansen, Flickr
Like many previous occasions, Gandhiji’s life once again became the role model for me to learn that one should not agree to facilities by way of compromise at the cost of principle. When some racist white men in South Africa pushed Gandhiji off the road, some other White friends offered to arrange special passes for him, but he gently turned down the proposal, because that would not bring any change for the community of colored population in that country. That great man recently guided me to refrain from attending the Parliament’s session, which would have been otherwise a compromise with my fundamental rights. No doubt, adoption of Gandhian strategies of noncooperation and boycott at various occasions (which are not enumerated here) in the recent past has often brought more suffering in my individual life as a periodic phenomenon. However, in the end, if followed in true spirit, such small but determined movements based on personal resistance have always led to the attainment of higher goals for entire community of disabled and have also brought self-gratification. However, I do not know what will finally happen in the episode narrated below.
I was attending an Orientation Programme at the UGC Academic Staff College, JNU, Delhi. As part of this programme sponsored by University Grants Commission, on 17th March 2011 we (thirty-seven teachers from different universities) visited Parliament. I was the only visually challenged member of this group of visitors.
Being visually challenged, I use a folding stick for mobility. Security persons in the Parliament tested the folding stick in their scanning machines and nothing dangerous was found: thus, I cleared many layers of security check. Visitors are not allowed to carry with them any electronic items inside the Parliament. But my folding stick was not an electronic instrument. Perhaps because of this realization, they allowed folding stick in the first few rounds of security check. However, in the final round of security check at the entrance for Lok Sabha Spectators Gallery, I was asked to deposit my folding stick with the security staff. I explained them that it is an assistive device; without it, I would not be able to walk myself. Their plain answer was that they are helpless as it is not allowed inside the parliament and that they will drop me at my place.
I replied that it is a support essential for my personal mobility and therefore you should not dispossess me of it. Many people use specs, crutches, wheelchair, hearing devices and the like (some of which are even electronic): folding stick is also one such assistive device, but not an electronic one. It gives me considerable autonomy and self confidence; and without it, I feel as if I am incomplete. It is allowed everywhere including airplanes and metro rail. As far as the question of its misuse is concerned, (which may desecrate the sanctity of parliament), it may happen with anything, specs, shoes, belts, speech or gesture. Last time I had visited parliament in the year 2001, when I was allowed to take my stick inside. Hence, as a matter of principle, I told them that either I would go with my stick, or I would not go at all.
Many colleagues endorsed my arguments and some even enthusiastically argued in favor of my position. However, some others (including the security staff) kept proposing that they would escort me inside the gallery provided I agree to surrender my stick. This is a usual phenomenon that my colleague friends escort me when I am walking with them. Still, wherever I find any difficulty, any obstacle requiring extra care and my companion is not able to properly explain it to me, or whenever I am left behind the group, I start using my stick. Very often, it also happens that the person who volunteers to escort me suddenly gets some other urgent work, which compels him/her to leave me on midway. If I am walking with a female colleague and I have to use lavatory, naturally I will have to help myself with my mobility cane. Moreover, since generally people are not adequately sensitive about how one should escort a disabled person, it is preferable to compensate it with assistive devices.
Hence, for those disabled persons who use assistive devices, these become an integral part of their persona to preserve and articulate their selfhood. Instead of complete independence, which is not feasible, or complete dependence, which is not desirable, the ideal is to practice “reasonable accommodation”. For this, it is essential that disabled persons always keep with them their assistive devices to exercise (wherever they feel necessary) whatever personal autonomy is provided by these non-human supports for their mobility and accessibility.
If once in the name of security we begin to compromise with this tendency of banning the entry of disabled carrying assistive devices to public places, it may spread further to include all high security zones, such as the offices of ministers, bureaucracy, airplanes, metro rail, courts or prisons and so on. If this becomes the general rule, we may not be able to participate in national festivals like Republic Day Celebrations as well. Parliament is the premier institution of the nation, therefore, it may easily be cited as the most convincing example for denying us our fundamental right to live, (Article 21 of Indian Constitution)—which means right to live with dignity as interpreted by Supreme Court in the Unni Krishnan Case—and free mobility (Article 19 A), which we cannot fully exercise without assistive devices.
Here, by way of an incidental but important factor, it may also be noted that this time I was visiting parliament as an employee of the state to discharge my duty. If the above-sketched trend spreads, it would prove for disabled employees an additional impediment in the way of discharging their official duties. Moreover, there is a need to understand that human body is “temporarily able body”; apart from a large number of other factors, age also makes body disabled. Therefore, many senior citizens use stick (even Gandhiji did so) as a support for mobility: an assistive device.
What will happen if any one of the range of persons described above in the paper that use assistive devices become the Member of Parliament? Would they be allowed to carry their assistive devices inside the house of parliament? What is the guarantee that they will not misuse it? (At present, there is at least one Member of Parliament who uses support for his mobility; and we have witnessed many MPs using wheelchairs; and some of them have even come to attend Parliament’s sessions on statures.)
The simple answer is that if some one misuses his/her assistive device for hurting others, or uses to desecrate the institution, he/she must be punished as per the laws of the land. Let the legal machinery do its function without depriving disabled persons their right. Due to mere insensitivity about the rights and requirements of disabled persons, others should not impose such demands on them, which further victimize them and take away whatever self autonomy is available to such persons.
Therefore, not only the security staff of public places must be sensitized about disabilities, the Committee constituted by the Union Government to draft Persons with Disabilities Act (2011) should mention in categorical terms the fundamental and inalienable right of persons with disabilities to possess assistive devices. This is the beauty of democracy, which still keeps me hopeful that the same Parliament where I could not enter this time personally as a visitor would pass such a law. Perhaps owing to this dimension of democracy, which allows every citizen to possess expectations, I bought a dozen souvenirs from the Parliament Museum, despite the humiliating incident cited above.
Assistant Professor, Department of History
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi
Joint Secretary, Sambhavana Organization
National Executive Member- All India Forum for Right to Education (AIF-RTE)
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