While effective and meaningful access to the police is important for all Indian citizens, it is doubly so for persons with disabilities. Their disability exposes them to heightened risk of violence. As the Supreme Court noted in a case concerning the rape of a blind Scheduled Caste woman earlier this year (Patan Jamal Vali v. The State Of Andhra Pradesh), “as the facts of this case make painfully clear, women with disabilities, who inhabit a world designed for the able-bodied, are often perceived as ‘soft targets’ and ‘easy victims’ for the commission of sexual violence.”
Against this backdrop, the Draft Accessibility Standards/Guidelines recently released by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for built infrastructure under its purview (police stations, prisons and disaster mitigation centres) and services associated with them assume significance. The Standards recognise that these spaces and services must be barrier-free by design, for persons with disabilities to fully and effectively enjoy their rights equally with others. Unfortunately, however, the Standards are not in conformity with a rights-based understanding of disability when they state that accessibility is society’s “social responsibility” towards the “differently abled”. This understanding is flawed as accessibility is in fact a legal entitlement that inheres in the disabled as rights-bearing citizens.
The Standards set out models for building new police stations as well as improving upon existing police stations and prisons that are modern, gender sensitive and accessible. On the positive side, the Standards speak to the need to make the websites and institutional social networks of police stations accessible, ensuring that persons with disabilities accused of committing any crimes are treated appropriately, having disabled-friendly entrances to police stations and disabled-friendly toilets.
Interestingly, the Standards state that the police staff on civil duty could be persons with disabilities. This is inconsistent with the Office Memorandum issued by the Department of Empowerment for Persons with Disabilities on August 18, 2021, according to which the Centre has exempted posts in the Indian Police Service; the Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshdweep, Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli Police Service; as well as the Indian Railway Protection Force Service from the mandated 4% reservation for persons with disabilities in government jobs. Even as the Central Government is committed to creating a more disabled-friendly police service through the issuance of these standards, it has foreclosed the possibility of the disabled being part of the police force. A police force that does not have adequate representation of people with disabilities can scarcely be inclusive towards them.
The Standards further highlight the distinctly disadvantageous position of persons with disabilities, especially women, children and persons with psycho-social disabilities, during natural disasters. Acknowledging that persons with disabilities must receive equal protection as others in such situations, the Standards provide direction on disability inclusion in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts. They also stress on disability inclusive training for persons involved in disaster relief activities, data aggregation, use of information and communication technology (ICT) and enforcing accessible infrastructure models for schools, hospitals and shelters following the principle of universal design.
Government functionaries to be sensitised on disability issues
Moreover, the Standards introduce accessibility norms for services associated with police stations and prisons. These norms promote the use of ICTs to facilitate communication, development of police websites, app-based services for filing complaints, making enquiries, etc., as well as encouraging the use of sign language, communication systems such as Braille, images for persons with psycho-social disabilities, and other augmentative and alternative modes of communication.
Equally, however, the Standards are also inadequate in some key ways. First, the cover letter to the Standards, containing such crucial details as the coordinates of the competent official to whom public comments are to be sent and the last date of submission, is embedded in an image. Consequently, a screen reader (the software used by the blind to access the computer) cannot make out the text.
Beyond the barriers of disability
Second, the Standards call for the deployment of directional signage regarding accessibility features in the MHA’s physical infrastructure as well as to indicate the location of accessible toilets. However, they do not require that such signage itself be accessible to the visually challenged, such as through auditory means.
Third, the Standards characterise several reasonable accommodations that are necessary for the disabled as being merely recommendatory. These include having trained police personnel in every police station to assist persons with disabilities and placing beepers at all entrances to enable the visually challenged/blind to locate themselves. Just as posting signs for the benefit of the able-bodied is not optional, it is difficult to understand why placing beepers for the benefit of the visually challenged should be.
Finally, in the case of Patan Jamal Vali, the Court suggested connecting special educators and interpreters with police stations to operationalise the reasonable accommodations embodied in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. It further recommended setting up a database in every police station of such educators, interpreters and legal aid providers to facilitate easy access and coordination. While the standards do require developing a mechanism to provide human assistance to the disabled such as sign language interpreters, they are short on specifics on this count.
In sum, the Standards, when enacted into law, will mark a huge step forward in making our law enforcement apparatus more disabled-friendly. Bolstering the Standards further, by incorporating the suggestions flowing from well- thought-out public comments, will take us closer to the aim of ensuring that India’s disabled citizens truly have the police they deserve.
Rahul Bajaj and Damini Ghosh are Senior Resident Fellows at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy