Towards Disability Inclusion: Making Private Service Providers Accountable
Unpacking the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities’s order
The Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD), in an order passed in late August 2022, recommended that Practo, a private healthcare service provider, make its online platform (website and app) accessible to persons with disabilities. The complainant, a person with complete visual impairment, filed a complaint earlier this year regarding inaccessibility of the platform describing the experience of accessing the app ‘akin to a sighted person being required to access an app in a foreign language that he does not understand’.
Key recommendations of CCPD
The order, while interpreting Section 46 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWDA), reiterated that private service providers are required to provide services in accordance with the accessibility rules prescribed by the Central Government under Section 40 of the RPWDA. The CCPD noted that these accessibility rules, which are notified under Rule 15 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, 2017 issued under the RPWDA (RPWD Rules), are applicable to every establishment, including a private entity. Practo was accordingly directed to modify its information and communication technology (ICT) platform and make it accessible to persons with disabilities within six months (and in any event, not later than nine months).
The CCPD also observed that Rule 15 of the RPWD Rules which requires ‘respective ministries and departments’ to ensure compliance with accessibility standards refers to the ministry which has been entrusted to look into affairs relating to a particular subject. In the present case, given that Practo was dealing with health services, the Directorate General of Health Services under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare was responsible for ensuring such compliance; this responsibility could not be shifted to any other ministry. The CCPD also decided that it would continue to monitor implementation of the provisions of the RPWDA by Practo.
Implications of the order
This order assumes tremendous importance given that private service providers, including Practo which provide essential services, continue to offer services through ICT platforms which do not comply with the existing accessibility standards. This is despite the clear use of the term ‘private’ in Section 46 of the RPWDA as well as the absence of any express limitation on the nature of ‘establishments’ in Rule 15 of the RPWD Rules.
While Practo, during the course of the hearing before the CCPD, showed willingness to make its platform accessible to persons with disabilities, it sought time as such modification would involve ‘severe engineering efforts’. It is interesting to note that being a service provider with a goal towards making healthcare accessible to all, Practo’s platform fails to take into account the requirements of persons with disabilities, who constitute a significant proportion of the Indian population; it is indeed reflective of the invisibility of such persons in the ICT design and development process. This also underscores the importance of awareness generation and sensitisation of the needs of persons with disabilities and a larger move towards making ICTs accessible to all.
Furthermore, the CCPD’s order delineates which ministry or department is required to take responsibility for ensuring compliance with the accessibility standards set out under the RPWDA, though such notification itself remains the responsibility of the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan) under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. This demonstrates that inclusion of persons with disabilities is a cross cutting issue and ministries or departments must coordinate and work together to achieve this larger goal, instead of acting in silos which continues to remain the norm.
The COVID- 19 pandemic has shown that accessibility of ICT platforms (websites and apps) is now more important than ever to achieve a truly inclusive society. Towards that goal, the CCPD’s order has far reaching implications. Whether other private service providers will get their act together and move towards making their ICT platforms accessible to persons with disabilities or wait for an adversarial action to be initiated, as seen in case of Practo, remains to be seen.
The implications discussed above are also analysed in greater detail in Vidhi’s white paper- ‘Beyond Reasonable Accommodation’.