A Level Playing Field: Myth or Reality?

by Yogini Oke

Introduction

ImageThe year 2012 brought a lot of welcome changes for the class of disabled people in India. The year witnessed the culmination of a decade long fight of disability-rights activists, academicians, lawyers etc for the people with disabilities as reflected in the amendments made in the Copyright Act. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in the same year made the latest version of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill public. This Bill, which seeks to replace the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, endeavours to bring India in line with the 21st century understanding of the rights of persons with disabilities as envisaged in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) ratified by India. India is a signatory of the Proclamation on the Full Participation and Equality of People with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region, 1992 . The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, was passed, to put this proclamation in effect. The 1995 Act provides for the provision of 3 percent reservation for persons with disabilities in government or government aided institutions. Accordingly, all the National Law Schools have 3 percent of the seats reserved for the persons with disabilities. The Draft Bill of 2012 intended to increase the reservation to 5 percent, in all government or government funded institutes.

However, the Disability-rights discourse in India recently faced a challenge as the Draft Disability Bill 2014 was put up in the Rajya Sabha for Discussion in the first week of February. The Disability Bill, 2014 is a departure from the rights-based approach which the draft of 2012 had promised.The approach adopted by the 2014 Bill leaves the infrastructural and other requirements of the disabled to the mercy of the institutions and governments and not as rights that the disabled persons are entitled to. The Parliament could not discuss or pass the bill due to disturbances related to the Telangana issue.

The author will explore the effect these laws have in pursuance of making education accessible to visually or reading-impaired students in India. The author, as a member of the IDIA Disability initiative, undertook a survey of the disabled students studying in National Law Schools. In an independent capacity, also undertook a survey of some Universities other than National Law Schools. The results of the survey in both set of institutes was rather disheartening if we, as a society are striving for inclusivity. The blog will discuss the survey in light of the above mentioned statutes.

In particular, the present blog will discuss two significant infrastructural requirements specific to the Visually Impaired – the provision of scribes and availability of study materials and other books in ‘accessible’ format.

Provision of Scribes

The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 provides for scribes for blindImage students or for students with low vision.Survey results revealed that while students from NLSIU and NALSAR were reasonably satisfied with the existing provision of scribes. However, visually impaired students from NLUO and WBNUJS were not very satisfied with the provision of scribes. In some National Law Schools, the University provides scribes, but most of them are not at all proficient with English. In other cases, the students have to go the extra mile to manage a scribe for themselves without receiving any assistance from University authorities.

The survey conducted for the students from colleges other than the National law schools was an eye-opener of sorts. A case in point is the remark of a student from Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupathi, who complained that the university does not allow the students to bring their own scribes. The scribes that are provided by the University are usually clerks which do not understand the subject’s jargon resulting into loss of marks for the students. A student studying in TISS, Mumbai commented that the scribes provided by the university are not efficient in explaining things such as pictorial representations or graphs to the examinee. A student studying in Dr Ambedkar Law College, Nagpur opined that “The university administration is generally not willing to even budge an inch in order to make any accommodations for a disabled student. They have a very rigid mindset. If you ask them for any kind of assistance, they start questioning your motives by asking questions like: ‘Nobody has ever asked for this kind of assistance, so why are you unnecessarily troubling us?’” It is in such cases that a right-based approach to disability is of utmost importance. A major problem with the disability draft 2014 is its shift from the right based approach which leaves the disabled at the mercy of educational or governmental institutions.

Access to books

The issue of access to books or the ‘Right to Read’ has been substantiated in Section 52(1)(b) of the Copyright Amendment Act, 2012  which creates a new copyright exception for the benefit of persons with print disabilities, including persons with visual impairment and dyslexia.

ImageThe Copyright Amendment Act,2012 obliviates the necessity to seek the consent of the publishers for converting their books into accessible formats. The Bill provides that any person or organization working for the benefit of the people with disabilities on a non-profit basis would not infringe copyright if they create copies of reading materials in accessible formal for such persons. The provision despite being very wide and inclusive, provides for safeguards against unauthorized use of the exception by non-beneficiaries. For instance, the books so provided in accessible formats shall be for private or personal use, educational or research related work only and not for commercial purposes.

The said amendment allows public libraries to convert the books to ‘accessible’ format which were earlier excluded. The National Law schools and other universities should strive to make books and reading materials accessible to the reading-disabled students. Education is incomplete without availability of books and access to books is an absolute necessity, if the reading-disabled are to be brought at a level-playing platform with others.

A student from WBNUJS commented that the libraries should strive to provide essential study materials in accessible formats to persons with disabilities. According to a partially-visually impaired student from NLSIU, all the important books should be made available in accessible formats.  This opinion prevails in visually or reading-impaired students from NLUO, RMLNLU and NUALS as well .One other exhibited concern is that the available special scanners are not used because of library staff apathy.

The result of the survey undertaken by students from other universities once again turned up disappointing results. For example, a student from BHU complains that materials are not available in soft copies especially due to unavailability of computers in his department. A student from TISS, Mumbai complained that only a fraction of the recommended reading material is available in soft copies. The author observed that the student has to take the initiative of converting the materials into soft copies without any support from the staff. Some students observed that the provision of books in accessible formats was discriminatory depending upon the academic record of the said student.

The said amendment allows public libraries to convert books to an ‘accessible’ format which was not permitted under the earlier Act. These appalling results goes to show that this change in law must be exploited to the fullest extent to make books and reading materials accessible to the visually disabled students. Education is incomplete without availability of books and access to books is an absolute necessity, if the reading disabled are to be brought at a level-playing platform with others.

The Draft Disability Bill 2014 if passed, will increase the percentage reservation for the Disabled from 3 to 5 percent. The above examples clear show the mammoth difference in law making and implementation. The failure to implement the useful provisions even in the National law schools is a regrettable irony. It is necessary that the needs of the students who currently fall under the quota are looked to. Only then can we dream of meaningful realisation of the 5 percent quota the Draft Disability Bill 2012 might bring in. In the absence of willpower to exercise and implement the provisions which the disabled are currently entitled to, any number of amendments will not really ameliorate the condition.

The cornerstones on the road to equality have been laid with the amendments, but only the mortar of implementation will ensure that this road does finally lead to equality.

(The author is a student of NUJS, Kolkata)

[Disclaimer: The author is a member of the IDIA disability chapter. The respondents to the survey were anonymous and their views are their own.]

Image courtesy: here, here and here.

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