Dr Y.S.R. Murthy

Founding Vice Chancellor of RV University, a Passionate institution builder, Educator and Human Rights Expert

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Tribute to Disability Rights Crusader, Javed Abidi

How I wish Javed Abidi were alive today to inspire persons with disability to fight for their rights and bring into reality the slogan that `Nothing about us without us’. He left away too soon at the age of 53. He was a true human rights crusader writes Prof. Y.S.R Murthy, Vice-Chancellor of RV University, Bengaluru.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 proclaims that `All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Yet, millions of persons with disabilities face physical, mental, attitudinal and other barriers on a regular basis. As a result, they are unable to enjoy their full rights on par with others. Despite human rights standards and despite National Building Code, many of our public places, academic institutions, and transportation systems are not fully accessible to wheelchair users with the result that they are excluded from the mainstream and are forced to lead lives as second-class citizens. When we look at persons facing visual, auditory and other challenges, their plight is no different. 

Though the Indian Constitution was drafted with great care, Part III dealing with Fundamental Rights tried to address social disability and resultant discrimination. The persons with disabilities and their rights are not explicitly mentioned in Part III but find a small mention in Part IV of the Constitution dealing with the Directive Principles of State Policy. Many activists tried to focus on the rights violations faced by persons with disabilities in the 1990s. Javed Abidi’s stellar contribution stands out as the best.

On 11th June, Javed Abidi’s birth anniversary was observed by some in the disability sector. I have had the pleasure of interacting with him on several occasions while working in the National Human Rights Commission of India between 1994 and 2009. But for his activism and his dharnas in front of Shastri Bhavan and Jantar Mantar, the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 would not have been passed by the Parliament and come into force. Later, he also advocated for stronger legislation and ensured that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016 was passed. His media advocacy and legislative advocacy shook the bureaucracy and forced them to act. 

I vividly remember a meeting in the Planning Commission convened by a Hon'ble Member of the Commission to discuss the issues faced by persons with disabilities. Over 30 stakeholders from various Ministries in the Government of India and civil society were present. It was held in a big conference hall. After two hours of free-wheeling discussion, Javed Abidi sought permission of the Chair and said, “You have convened this meeting. Water, tea, coffee and refreshments are being served. It is an air-conditioned room. The toilet adjacent to this Conference Room in the Planning Commission has one step at the entry and is not accessible to wheelchair users like me. Your building, Yojana Bhavan is not accessible as it has no ramp. Here, only plans are made and never executed.” Javed Abidi did not mince words. He called a spade a spade and spoke the truth to power. His dressing down had shaken up the higher authorities in the Planning Commission.

Making air travel accessible

We have over 180 National and State-level human rights institutions for women, children, persons from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities, disabilities etc. One often finds public statements from these statutory or constitutional bodies that they need more powers to handle the challenges. One only needs to contrast their plea with Mr. Javed Abidi. Faced with the personal difficulty of boarding an aircraft, he took the legal route and filed a public interest petition before the Supreme Court of India. Javed Abidi felt that lifting a wheelchair user and placing him inside an aircraft violated his dignity.  Though he did not have any statutory authority, Javed Abidi shook Air India and Indian Airlines. In response to his petition, the Apex Court gave directions to provide ambu lifts in all airports to take a wheelchair user to the aircraft with dignity (Javed Abidi v. Union of India, AIR 1999 SC 512). This has immensely benefitted persons with disabilities in the following years. 

Making polling process disabled-friendly

He also filed petitions on making voting booths accessible to persons with disabilities (Disabled Rights Group v. The Chief Election Commissioner & Anr. (W.P. (Civil) no.187 of 2004). Following his intervention, the Apex Court passed orders for good-quality ramps in all polling stations, the introduction of new EVMs containing Braille numerals by the side of ballot buttons and separate queues for disabled people. 2009 Lok Sabha polls will go down in the history of India as the first-ever disabled-friendly election.    

I recall having seen pictures of Javed Abidi along with his wheelchair being lifted at the Red Fort published in the newspapers. It had a deep effect on the public conscience. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  He advocated for the inclusion of disability in the Census and the Five Year Plans and making websites accessible. Javed Abidi critiqued the Union Budgets from the disability accessibility lens. All his protests and activities led to several positive outcomes and paved the way for improvements. 

His organization, the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled held a mirror to the industry and government with facts and figures about the number of persons with disabilities who have enrolled in an employment exchange and the number employed. There was a big yawning gap with only a minuscule proportion of those seeking employment actually getting it. Javed was also associated with Disability Rights Group and a number of other initiatives. 

Today, there is a huge unfinished agenda with regard to the rights of persons with disability. There is still a long road to be traversed. How I wish Javed Abidi were alive today to inspire persons with disability to fight for their rights and bring into reality the slogan that `Nothing about us without us’. He left away too soon at the age of 53. He was a true crusader. The human rights world misses him dearly. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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