In holding that people suffering from disability are entitled to the same benefits and relaxations as candidates belonging to the Scheduled Castes, the Supreme Court has recognised the travails of the disabled in accessing education or employment, regardless of their social status. Even though drawn from all sections of society, those suffering from the several categories of disability recognised by law have always been an under-privileged and under-represented section, a fact noticed in official studies in the past. Recently, the top court ruled that the Delhi High Court had correctly decided in 2012 that “people suffering from disabilities are also socially backward, and are therefore, at the very least, entitled to the same benefits as given to the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes candidates”. Therefore, it took the view that when SC/ST candidates get a relaxation of a certain percentage of marks to qualify for admission, the same relaxation shall apply to disabled candidates too. In the 2012 case before the High Court, a university had allowed a 10% concession in the minimum eligibility requirement for SC/ST candidates, and 5% concession for disabled applicants. The High Court ruled against this differential treatment, terming it discriminatory. The larger principle behind this was that without imparting proper education to those suffering from disabilities, “there cannot be any meaningful enforcement of their rights” both under the Constitution and the then prevailing 1995 legislation on providing equal opportunities to the disabled and protecting their rights. It can only be more applicable, now that a fresh law that aims for a greater transformative effect, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, is in place.
A counterpoint to the idea of eliminating the distinction between the disabled and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes may arise from those questioning the attempt to equate physical or mental disability with the social disability and experience of untouchability suffered by marginalised sections for centuries. For instance, the social background of disabled persons from a traditionally privileged community may gave them an advantage over those suffering from historical social disability. However, this may not always be the case. The Delhi High Court had cited the abysmally low literacy and employment rates among persons with disabilities. Educational indicators captured in the 2001 Census showed that illiteracy among the disabled was much higher than the general population figure. The share of disabled children out of school was quite higher than other major social categories. The 2001 Census put the illiteracy rate among the disabled at 51%. There was similar evidence of their inadequate representation in employment too. The 2016 law sought to address this by raising the quota for the disabled from 3% to 5% and envisaging incentives for the private sector to hire them too. It is vital that this is fully given effect to so that this significant segment of the population is not left out of social and economic advancement.
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