Wednesday, October 12, 2011

We need sensitized and qualified Disability Commissioners in States

Dear colleagues,

The recent case of Ms. Nilima Surve (a visually impaired employee) is an example of how departments can label an employee with disability as "incompetent" and remove him/her from job on such grounds for no fault of his/her. The actual reason being the refusal of employer to provide reasonable accommodation to the employee with disabilities and refusal to accept the technological advances in the work environment. 

Ms. Surve was appointed as a Junior Clerk-cum-typist in Chetana's Hazarimal Somani College of Commerce at Bandra (E), Maharastra in November 2006, and was dismissed from service in March 2007 on the grounds that her work was unsatisfactory and there were typing errors in her work. The employee asked for screen reading software in the computer so that she could do the job effectively. The college, however, not only refused to provide the software but even refused to allow her to organize one on her own! 

The matter was taken up with the Court of Commissioner -Disabilities who mentioned the need of software and technology to avoid typing errors in future but did not bind the employer to provide one for the employee and remarked, "The woman should have acquired the knowledge of technology available and used in the market instead of asking for a specific software." while upholding the  termination of the employee vide its order dated 30 October 2010 ! 

Left with no option after such an insensitive order from the Commissioner disabilities, Ms. Surve then approached Mumbai High Court through a writ petition challenging the impugned order.  The bench on 10th October 2011 giving relief to Ms. Surve directed the State Government to make an exception and provide her with the devices, including gadgets and software to enhance her performance.

The root cause of the problem

(A) Incompetent and Unqualified Persons appointed as Commissioners-Disabilities

This is important to stress here that the Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities are appointed under sub-section (1) of section 60the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995; which is reproduced below for the benefit of readers:

Extract from the Persons with Disabilities (equal opportunities, protection of rights and full participation) Act 1995 -

"60. Appointment of Commissioners for persons with disabilities.- (1) Every State Government may, by notification appoint a Commissioner for persons with disabilities for the purpose of this Act.
(2) A person shall not be qualified for appointment as a Commissioner unless he has special knowledge or practical experience in respect of matters relating to rehabilitation.
(3) The salary and allowances payable to and other terms and conditions of service (including pension,
gratuity and other retirement benefits) of the Commissioner shall be such as may be prescribed by the
State Government.
(4) The State Government shall determine the nature and categories of officers and other employees required to assist the Commissioner in the discharge of his functions and provide the Commissioner with such officers and other employees as it thinks fit.
(5) The officers and employees provided to the Commissioner shall discharge their functions under the general superintendence of the Commissioner.
(6) The salaries and allowances and other conditions of service of officers and employees provided to the Commissioner shall be such as may be prescribed by the State Government.

61.Powers of the Commissioner.- The Commissioner within the State shall-
(a) coordinate with the departments of the State Government for the programmes and schemes for the
benefit of persons with disabilities;
(b) monitor the utilisation of funds disbursed by the State Government;
(c) take steps to safeguard the rights and facilities made available to persons with disabilities;
(d) submit reports to the State Government on the implementation of the Act at such intervals as that Government may prescribe and forward a copy thereof to the Chief Commissioner."

However, the State Governments rarely bother to implement section 60 (2) in right spirit which mandates that  a person shall not be qualified for appointment as a Commissioner unless he has special knowledge or practical experience in respect of matters relating to rehabilitation.  Mostly the civil servants of the state are appointed or given extra charge of Commissioner- Disabilities. These officers are expected to be custodians of the legal duty to safeguard the rights and interests of the persons with disabilities. Since they have no special knowledge or interest in respect of matters related to the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities, they are bound to commit such blunders and display such apathy and negative attitudes. 

As legal practitioner, I have often seen that the work of the State Commissioner Disabilities is delegated to District Magistrates/District Commissioners in the districts as an additional charge. Therefore, there is no check whether the appointed officer is aware about disability rehabilitation issues. The whole system gets apathetic because often they have no time, knowledge, sensitization or interest to do justice to the additional duty!


(B) Lack of clearly written instructions for employers

Second lesson is lack of information and instructions to the recruiting/employing departments about the rights of the employees with disabilities at workplace. They don't seem to be aware that providing software, barrier free environment, assistive aids and devices that provide a level playing field are to be provided at the cost of the Government! 

Section 42 of The persons with Disabilities Act 1995 clearly provides as below: 

"42. Aids and appliances to persons with disabilities.- The appropriate Governments shall by notification make schemes to provide aids and appliances to persons with disabilities."

Similarly Section 48 of the Act provides that the appropriate government and local authorities shall promote and sponsor research, inter alia, in the following areas:

(a) prevention of disability;
(b) rehabilitation including community based rehabilitation;
(c) development of assistive devices including their psycho-social aspects;
(d) job identification;
(e) on site modifications in offices and factories


The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that India is signatory to has defined "Reasonable accommodation" as necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms;

Article 27, UNCRPD -"Work and Employment" mandates the states to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided to persons with disabilities in the workplace;

And making provisions for a level playing field would be covered within the meaning of Reasonable Accommodation.

The general trend

The right to technology and assistive aids and devices for a level playing field, in other words "reasonable accommodation" at work places is increasingly gaining center-stage with a humongous number of persons with disabilities claiming their right to employment.   There is a 3% minimum reservation for the persons with disabilities in India in the government sector and as per law, those selected on their own merit by contesting against the general list can not be adjusted against the reserved quota of jobs. This means a large number might find a good career in the Govt. jobs.

However, the employers - both in government and private  sector are not aware and sometimes even when aware are reluctant to provide the necessary level playing field (read reasonable accommodation) to the workers with disabilities. I know of several blind employees in the banks who were employed as Clerks, Stenos etc however, continue to sit idle since the banks have moved to computerization and there is hardly any job assigned to them. The banks have not updated themselves with the required technology to put the services of the visually impaired employees to use. The employees feel redundant and the department feels the employee is good for nothing! Since these banks are run by government they can not turn them away, but such situation is neither in the interest of employees nor the bank. This also sets a wrong precedent in the eyes of the senior management in banks about the utility of  new employees with disabilities who might fill the reserved vacancies in future.

The road ahead



The lessons from these cases only give us strong reminders that the State implement the Disabilities Act properly and stop the lip service. It is an ideal opportunity that instead of civil servants and government officers, the states recruit qualified persons with knowledge and experience of disability rehabilitation for the posts of Commissioner or District Commissioner/Additional Commissioner under the Disabilities Act and immediately put a stop to the current practice of appointing unqualified officers.

Secondly it is high time that the Government issues clear, unambiguous instructions /notification highlighting the equipment /softwares / devices etc required for each disability for each post besides a barrier free environment based on Universal design in each office/workplace.

Similar notifications must be issued/adopted by States to ensure that the Persons with Disabilities do not face such hostile environment and get a level playing field/reasonable accommodation so as to contribute to their maximum for the growth of their career and the development of nation.

Here are few links to the news coverage of Ms. Surve's case.

regards
Subhash Chandra Vashishth






MUMBAI: In a victory for visually impaired Nilima Surve who was fired by a college trust for typing errors, the Bombay high court on Monday directed the state government to make an exception and provide her with devices, including gadgets and software, to enhance her performance.

A division bench of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice Roshan Dalvi also directed the college trust to permit Surve to resume work.The judges were hearing a petition filed by Surve challenging an order dated October 30, 2010, by the commissioner for disabilities upholding her termination.

Surve was appointed as a junior clerk-cum-typist at Chetana's Hazarimal Somani College of Commerce at Bandra (E) in November 2006 and dismissed in March 2007 on the grounds that her "work was not satisfactory and there were typing errors".

Her advocate Chetan Agrawal said the commissioner, in his order, acknowledged the use of software to avoid mistakes in future but the college refused to provide or allow installation of the software provided by her.

The judges, in December 2010, had observed that the "disabled need support, not sympathy".On January 15, the court isued a general order directing the state government to provide special gadgets and software to its employees, including those in public sector undertakings, universities and colleges.

On Monday, the judges observed that the state will take time to implement their directive. Justice Shah said, "There is no reason why as a special case such devices for the petitioner should not be provided in the meantime.'' 

The judges have asked Surve to send a requisition to the government for the devices and the software required by her and directed the state to make them available to her three weeks thereafter. "In short, the government will immediately make payment to the supplier for such gadgets or devices and software which the petitioner requires for enhancing her performance in typing and other desk work."

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