India’s Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 is a vital law that intends to secure and advance the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). The Act accords various rights and entitlements to PWDs, such as the right to education, employment, healthcare, and accessibility. However, the shortage of trained legal and para-legal professionals creates a significant barrier to justice for PWDs, who struggle to access their rights and entitlements under the Act.
India has an estimated 70 million PWDs, making it one of the larger disabled populations globally. Yet, the country only has 100 lawyers per lakh and only a few among them specialise in disability law. The shortage of trained para-legal professionals is also a significant challenge, with only a fraction of the 100,000 para-legal volunteers in India receiving training on disability law. According to a survey conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), only 10 per cent of law colleges in India offer courses on disability law. This scarcity of legal professionals can be attributed to the fact that disability law is not given the same level of importance as other branches of law, and the Act itself being a relatively new legal framework.
Lack of awareness
The situation is further compounded by a lack of awareness about the rights of PWDs, both among the public and legal professionals. A study by NCPEDP found that only 36 per cent of legal professionals surveyed were aware of the Act; only 7 per cent had dealt with disability-related cases. This lack of awareness and expertise could result in inadequate representation for PWDs, leading to further marginalisation and discrimination.
While there have been scores of instances of PWDs facing challenges and suffering miscarriage of justice, recent evidence suggests that despite the rather dim statistics outlined above, the minuscule proportion of lawyers and paralegals who do take up the cause of disability-related discrimination can engender a positive impact.
For example, a para-legal professional trained in disability law helped a visually impaired woman secure her rights to a pension, which had been denied due to her disability. In another instance, a lawyer trained in disability law represented a person with cerebral palsy in a discrimination case, successfully securing compensation and legal remedies for the individual.
To address this issue, there is a need to include the Act as a mandatory subject in law colleges. Training should focus on building a comprehensive understanding of the Act and its provisions, as well as practical skills in advocacy and representation for PWDs. Such training can be provided through specialised courses, workshops, on-the-job training, and mentoring. This will help in ensuring that legal professionals and para-legal volunteers are trained in disability law and are better equipped to represent PWDs. International best practices suggest that ensuring barrier-free access to the judiciary for PWDs involves several measures, including developing training programmes and resources on disability law and its implementation for legal professionals and para-legal volunteers; providing accessible and inclusive court facilities that cater to the needs of PWDs; ensuring that all court procedures and documents are available in accessible formats, such as Braille, audio, and sign language interpretation; providing reasonable accommodations and support services to PWDs in court; establishing specialised courts or tribunals to handle cases involving PWDs; and encouraging the involvement of PWDs in the justice system.
Investing in the training of legal and para-legal professionals in disability law has economic and social benefits. Studies have shown that when PWDs have access to legal services, they are more likely to participate in the workforce, access education, and contribute to society.
The writer, a disability rights activist, is an alumnus of IIM Tiruchirappalli and a senior consultant in the technology sector