Evolution of Disability Rights in India: A Journey from Exclusion to Inclusion

Evolution of Disability Rights in India: A Journey from Exclusion to Inclusion


This research paper examines the evolution of disability rights in India, focusing on the significant milestones, key legislation, and landmark case law that have shaped the current legal and social landscape for persons with disabilities (PWDs). The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 plays a very significant role in addressing the challenges and providing opportunities for Persons with disabilities. But after the act has been passed many of the Persons with disabilities face unique challenges in society, including stigma and discrimination. The paper explores the shift from a charity-based approach to a rights-based framework, highlighting the influence of the social model of disability and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Keywords: Disability rights, India, legislation, case law, social model, inclusion, equality.


India is thought to have the second-highest population of disabled people, after China. In India, people with disabilities endured social stigma, prejudice, and marginalization from the majority for millennia. They were frequently treated like objects of charity and sympathy, and their rights were usually disregarded. However, judicial activism, legislative reforms, and the growing voice of disability rights activists have all contributed to a substantial evolution of disability rights in India during the past few decades.

The coexistence of the medical and social conceptions of disability is unique to India. The government and non-governmental organization sectors continue to concentrate on concerns related to the prevalence, management, and prevention of disabilities, even though disability rights advocates have drawn attention to the social model of disability. Considering India’s adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which attempts to put the social model’s tenets into practice, this could lead to a complicated scenario. It’s critical to manage this intersection and strive for a disability policy that is more inclusive and rights-based.

Early Developments and Welfare-Oriented Approach
Pre-Colonial India:
• Religious and Philosophical Views: Ancient India saw a mix of interpretations regarding disability. While some texts like the Vedas promoted inclusion and acceptance, others reflected societal biases.
• Disability in Literature: Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata depicted characters with disabilities, highlighting their strengths and contributions.
• Specialized Education: Historical records indicate the existence of early institutions offering specialized education for individuals with blindness, suggesting a form of recognition and support.
Colonial Era (1857-1947):
• Charity and Institutionalization: The British introduced welfare measures like the Indian Lunacy Act (1858) and the Bombay Mental Hospitals Act (1912), primarily focusing on confinement and segregation.
• Education and Vocational Training: Some institutions like the Deaf and Dumb School (1884) and the National School for the Blind (1950) were established, but these catered to limited needs and perpetuated a sense of isolation.
• Limited Legal Recognition: The Indian Succession Act (1925) and the Indian Contract Act (1872) acknowledged certain rights for individuals with disabilities but lacked comprehensive safeguards against discrimination.
Post-Independence and Welfare Approach (1947-1990s):
• Welfare-Oriented Legislation: The Indian government continued the colonial model, enacting laws like the Rehabilitation Council of India Act (1992) and the National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act (1999) to provide services and support.
• Limited Focus on Rights: While these initiatives aimed to address basic needs, they primarily focused on welfare and rehabilitation, neglecting broader issues of discrimination and equal rights.
• Disability Rights Movement Begins to Stir: Despite limited legal framework, individual activists and organizations like the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) started raising awareness and advocating for change.
Shift Towards a Rights-Based Approach (1990s-present):
• Influence of the UNCRPD: India’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007 marked a significant turning point, advocating a social model of disability and emphasizing equal rights and inclusion.
• Landmark Legislation: The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (PWDA) was enacted, followed by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPwD) which incorporated the UNCRPD principles and expanded the scope of disability rights.
• Case Law and Advocacy: Landmark cases like NFB vs Union of India (1996) and Disability Rights Education and Advocacy Movement vs Union of India (2013) further strengthened the legal framework and highlighted the importance of accessibility and inclusion.
• Civil Society Activism: Disability rights organizations and individuals continued to play a crucial role in mobilizing support, advocating for policy changes, and challenging discriminatory practices.

Legislative Initiatives
The Lok Sabha has approved the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2016. The Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 will be superseded by this measure. The new bill increases the number of disabilities that are recognized from seven to twenty-one, and it gives the central government the power to add more in the future.

  1. Blindness: This type of handicap describes complete blindness, in which a person is unable to see or discriminate between light and dark. It must be really difficult.
  2. Low Vision: This kind of handicap describes a state in which an individual’s visual acuity, even with the best corrections, is not greater than 6/18, or less than 20/60 up to 3/60, or up to 10/200 in their better eye. Additionally, it may entail a narrow field of vision, ranging from 10 to fewer than 40 degrees.
  3. Leprosy-Cured Individuals: This kind of impairment is caused by the chronic infectious disease leprosy, which mostly affects the skin, peripheral nerves, upper respiratory tract mucosal surfaces, and the eyes. Numerous symptoms and consequences may result from it.
  4. Hearing confinement: It is a term used to describe a partial or complete loss of hearing. Two further categories for this impairment exist: “deaf” and “hard of hearing.” When we refer to someone as “deaf,” we mean that they have a 70 dB hearing loss in both ears for speech frequencies. Conversely, those who are “hard of hearing” have hearing losses in both ears that range from 60 to 70 dB in speech frequencies.
  5. Locomotor Disability: This kind of disability is characterized by trouble moving from one location to another and is frequently associated with leg impairments. It can include problems with the muscles, bones, and joints that affect how a person moves, including walking, lifting, and holding objects in their hands.
  6. Dwarfism: A growth condition impairment characterized by a person’s shorter stature than average. Dwarfism is defined as having an adult body height of less than 4 feet 10 inches.
  7. Intellectual Disability: The skills required to live and work in the community may be severely limited for those with intellectual disability. Communication, self-care, social skills, safety, and self-direction issues are a few examples of these.
  8. Mental Illness: This umbrella word refers to a variety of conditions affecting the brain or mind. A person’s ideas, feelings, and behaviors might be affected by these illnesses, which include bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and personality disorders.
  9. Autism spectrum disorder: It is a type of disability which indeed an umbrella term that encompasses various conditions such as Autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and atypical autism. It affects how information is processed and stored in the brain. People with autism often experience challenges in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and other activities.
    The Act broadened the definition of disability to include 21 disabilities (increased from 7 in the 1995 Act), encompassing physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory impairments. Moreover, it mandated reservation in government jobs (4%) and higher education (5%) for persons with disabilities. Thus, the Act has the potential to create a more inclusive and equitable society where persons with disabilities can enjoy their full rights and participate actively in all aspects of life.

Ongoing Challenges and Future Prospects of People with Disabilities
While India has made significant strides in recognizing and upholding the rights of people with disabilities, numerous obstacles still hinder their full inclusion and participation in society. Here, we delve deeper into these ongoing challenges and explore promising prospects for positive change.
Persistent Challenges
• Accessibility: Physical, informational, and communication barriers continue to limit access to public spaces, transportation, and information. This lack of accessibility severely restricts opportunities for education, employment, healthcare, and social interaction.
• Implementation Gap: Bridging the gap between legislation and its effective implementation at all levels of government remains a crucial challenge. Despite progressive laws like the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD Act) 2016, inadequate implementation leaves many vulnerable and their rights unfulfilled.
• Employment and Economic Inclusion: Unemployment rates remain high among people with disabilities, limiting their access to decent work and economic security. This lack of financial independence further reinforces marginalization and hinders social mobility.
• Education: While access to education has improved, ensuring quality inclusive education and addressing the specific needs of learners with disabilities requires further attention. Existing challenges include inadequate infrastructure, lack of trained teachers, and discriminatory practices within educational institutions.
• Healthcare: People with disabilities often face discrimination and lack access to adequate and affordable healthcare services. This results in poorer health outcomes and limited access to specialized care and rehabilitation services.
• Social Security: Many lack access to adequate social security and support systems, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and marginalization. This lack of safety nets further exacerbates existing inequalities and hinders their ability to live independently.
• Data and Research: There is a lack of comprehensive data and research on disability in India. This lack of data hinders effective policy-making, program development, and resource allocation for disability-specific initiatives.
• Accessibility in Technology: Digital accessibility remains a challenge, limiting access to information and communication technologies for many people with disabilities. This lack of access hinders their ability to participate in online activities, access essential information, and engage in the digital economy.
Future Prospects for Progress
Despite these challenges, several promising developments offer hope for the future of people with disabilities in India:
• Technological Advancements: Assistive technologies and accessibility features in technology have the potential to significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities. These advancements can enhance independence, facilitate communication, and provide access to information and education.
• Emerging Legislation and Policy Initiatives: Ongoing efforts to amend existing legislation, develop new policies, and strengthen enforcement mechanisms can address existing gaps and promote disability-inclusive practices. These initiatives can pave the way for a more equitable and accessible society.
• Increased Public Awareness and Advocacy: Growing awareness about disability rights and the tireless efforts of individuals and organizations are leading to a more inclusive and supportive society. This increased awareness is fostering a shift in perceptions and promoting a more empathetic and understanding environment.
• Global Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing: Sharing best practices and learning from success stories around the world can accelerate progress towards disability inclusion. International collaborations can provide valuable insights and support for developing effective solutions and implementing successful programs.
• Shifting Public Perception: A growing understanding of disability as a social construct rather than an individual deficit is encouraging a more inclusive and empowering environment. This shift is leading to greater acceptance and recognition of the unique abilities and contributions of people with disabilities.
• Focus on Individualized Support: Recognizing the diverse needs and preferences of people with disabilities and providing personalized support can lead to better outcomes. This individualized approach ensures that resources and services are tailored to individual circumstances, maximizing their effectiveness and impact.
• Empowerment and Self-advocacy: The growing disability rights movement and increased self-advocacy by individuals are leading to greater participation and decision-making power for people with disabilities. This empowerment is crucial for ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are addressed effectively.
Judicial Interpretation
Judicial Interpretation of Rights of People with Disabilities: A Detailed Analysis
The judiciary plays a crucial role in interpreting and upholding the rights of people with disabilities. Through landmark judgments, courts have expanded the scope of disability rights, promoted inclusion and accessibility, and challenged societal biases.

  1. Early Recognition: Early judicial decisions like Nanak Chand vs Banarasi Das (1930)3 recognized specific impairments like deafness as disabilities, paving the way for future legal protections.
    Building upon this foundation, legislation like the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, of 2016 expanded the definition of disability to encompass 21 categories, embracing physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory impairments.
  2. Landmark Cases: Judicial pronouncements like National Federation of the Blind vs Union of India (1996) and Disability Rights Education and Advocacy Movement vs Union of India (2013)4 established the fundamental right to education for individuals with disabilities, emphasizing the importance of accessibility in schools and transportation.
    These cases shifted the focus from exclusion to inclusion, demanding accessible educational environments and advocating for individualized support to cater to diverse needs.
  3. Recognizing Citizenship: Landmark judgments like the State of Bombay vs Narasu Appa Mali (1952)5 recognized the right to vote for individuals with disabilities, affirming their full citizenship and participation in political processes.
  4. Challenging Stigma: Cases like Aruna Ratan Mishra vs Union of India (2000) challenged societal stigma by recognizing the right to marriage and family for individuals with mental disabilities, upholding their autonomy and agency.
  5. Right to Accessible Transportation: Judgments like Disability Rights Education and Advocacy Movement vs Union of India (2013) established the right to accessible transportation for individuals with disabilities, recognizing its importance for education, employment, and social participation.
    Courts have held various institutions accountable for failing to comply with accessibility standards, setting precedents for future cases, and promoting a culture of compliance with disability rights legislation. Continued efforts towards strengthening judicial capacity and ensuring effective implementation are crucial to building a truly inclusive society where everyone can participate and thrive.

The development of disability rights in India has been a fascinating journey marked by both notable advancements and persistent obstacles. The legal landscape has changed, acknowledging the inherent dignity and worth of people with disabilities, moving away from the early welfare-oriented methods and towards the current rights-based framework.
Disability rights are becoming more widely recognized, with landmark laws like the RPwD Act 2016 and ground-breaking court rulings encouraging accessibility, inclusion, and equal opportunity in work, education, and other spheres of life. Disability rights organisations’ expanding lobbying and public awareness campaigns have been essential in changing public opinion and combating social stigma.
transformed into significant improvements in the lives of those with disabilities and codified in legislation.
Looking ahead, the future of disability rights in India holds both promise and potential. Technological advancements, emerging legal initiatives, and a growing emphasis on individual needs offer opportunities for further progress and inclusion. Collaboration between government, civil society, and individuals is crucial to harness these opportunities and create a society where everyone can participate and contribute their unique talents and perspectives.
By building upon the progress achieved and addressing the challenges that remain, India can continue to move forward on the path of ensuring full and equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of their disability. This journey towards a truly inclusive society requires ongoing commitment, collective action, and the unwavering belief that every individual deserves to live a life of dignity, respect, and opportunity.

Author: Sharanya Agarwal, a Student of the Amity University, Lucknow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *