It is a huge task to try and cater to “lawyers, NGOs, academics, human rights activists and the general public” as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) wants to, in its recently published Disability Manual 2005. For a lawyers’ handbook, it may be enough to include legislation and case law, academics may prefer critical analysis, and activists may need practical examples from real life. The Disability Manual works best as the first, with faint swings at the other targets.
The disability rights movement began in the 1970s in the aftermath of the American civil rights and women’s rights movements. Today international norms and legislation duly recognize persons with disabilities as rights holders and enjoin national governments to actively promote the necessary conditions for the disabled to fully realize their rights.
The manual, a sturdy publication with good production values, is divided into six parts. The first explains the historical and conceptual underpinnings of disability jurisprudence. The understanding of disability has changed from medical (disability as individual pathology) to social to the human rights definition in vogue now, with factors as wide-ranging as wars, poverty, natural disasters, crime, occupational disasters, and Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) of the World Bank brought under scrutiny. These are looked at briefly and one wishes the language was more lucid and the text more elucidated, especially since this chapter is meant to be foundational to the rest of the manual.
The models that inform law and policy have also shifted, but in the strange way law has of enduring, continue to uneasily coexist. The charity model, the bio-centric model, the functional model and the human rights model are examined in the next chapter with particular regard to their impact on Indian legislation. The final chapter in this section outlines the fundamental right to equality as guaranteed by the Constitution of India, the Directive Principles of State Policy, along with statutes like Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities; Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995; Mental Health Act, 1987 and Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992.
The four parts following trace international norms and legislation relating to the protection and promotion of social and cultural rights, economic rights, and civil and political rights of the disabled. These are dealt with comprehensively but staidly. There are useful tables that compare international standards with national standards contained in laws and regulations, and also tables comparing general rights with rights specific to the disabled.
The sixth part deals with international mechanisms and procedures that can be deployed to advance the rights of persons with disabilities. The role played by international human rights law and procedures is, here at the end, properly contextualized and attempts to adorn them with a “talismanic quality” are protested. The chapter explicates with hypothetical cases the procedural options available to someone wishing to protest a human rights violation or issue internationally. This is the one place in the book where case studies, albeit hypothetical, are used, and, not peculiarly, they immediately enliven the text.
Eight annexures, beginning from national legislation to international frameworks and principles, make up the tail end of the book.
As suggested earlier, people engaged in the advocacy of disability rights might not find the Disability Manual stimulating since they would be looking for more case studies, more strategies, more hands-on tips and advice on how to challenge rights infringements. They would want to know what lies beyond rights jurisprudence. Law and legal change have proved ineffective in bringing about social change, and the attitudes of pity and discrimination against the disabled so prevalent in society have not yielded to the rights discourse which ends up seeing the disabled subject as single and monolithic.
A discussion of the Ability Fest’05, where disability-themed films were screened for four days and created an air of excitement and debate in Chennai, or the colorful India Gate demonstration which bemused all the passers-by and hangers-on, would have added something extra to the manual.
All said, the manual fills a gap long felt for a comprehensive publication on disability rights in India. It is hopefully the first of many to come.