Recently, in the case of Vikash Kumar vs Union Public Service Commission, the Honorable Supreme Court spoke about the role and value of reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. In relevant part, the Court stated as follows:
“35 The principle of reasonable accommodation captures the positive obligation of the State and private parties to provide additional support to persons with disabilities to facilitate their full and effective participation in society.
The concept of reasonable accommodation is developed in section (H) below. For the present, suffice it to say that, for a person with disability, the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights to equality, the six freedoms and the right to life under Article 21 will ring hollow if they are not given this additional support that helps make these rights real and meaningful for them. Reasonable accommodation is the instrumentality – are an obligation as a society – to enable the disabled to enjoy the constitutional guarantee of equality and non- discrimination.
In this context, it would be apposite to remember Justice R M Lodha’s (as he then was) observation in Justice Sunanda Bhandare Foundation v. Union of India, where he stated:
“9…In the matters of providing relief to those who are differently abled, the approach and attitude of the executive must be liberal and relief oriented and not obstructive or lethargic…” (2018) 2 SCC 397.
44 As a social construct, disability encompasses features broader and more comprehensive than a medical condition. The RPwD Act, 2016 recognizes that disability results in inequality of access to a range of public and private entitlements. The handicaps which the disabled encounter emerge out of disability’s engagement with the barriers created by prejudice, discrimination and societal indifference. Operating as restraining factors, these barriers have origins which can be traced to physical, social, economic and psychological conditions in society. Operating on the pre-existing restraints posed by disability, these barriers to development produce outcomes in which the disabled bear an unequal share of societal burdens. The legislation has recognized that remedies for the barriers encountered by the disabled are to be found in the social environment in which they live, work and co-habit with others. The barriers encountered by every disabled person can be remedied by recognizing comprehensive rights as inhering in them; rights which impose duties and obligations on others.
45 The principle of reasonable accommodation acknowledges that if disability as a social construct has to be remedied, conditions have to be affirmatively created for facilitating the development of the disabled. Reasonable accommodation is founded in the norm of inclusion. Exclusion results in the negation of individual dignity and worth or they can choose the route of reasonable accommodation, where each individuals’ dignity and worth is respected. Under this route, the “powerful and the majority adapt their own rules and practices, within the limits of reason and short of undue hardship, to permit realization of these ends.”
46 In the specific context of disability, the principle of reasonable accommodation postulates that the conditions which exclude the disabled from full and effective participation as equal members of society have to give way to an accommodative society which accepts difference, respects their needs and Reasonable Accommodation facilitates the creation of an environment in which the societal barriers to disability are progressively answered. Accommodation implies a positive obligation to create conditions conducive to the growth and fulfilment of the disabled in every aspect of their existence – whether as students, members of the workplace, participants in governance or, on a personal plane, in realizing the fulfilling privacies of family life. The accommodation which the law mandates is ‘reasonable’ because it has to be tailored to the requirements of each condition of disability. The expectations which every disabled person has are unique to the nature of the disability and the character of the impediments which are encountered as its consequence.
47 For instance, for a visually impaired person, the reasonable accommodation she requires might consist of screen magnification software or a screen reader [which can speak out the content on a computer screen in a mechanical voice]. It might also consist of content being made available in Braille and a sighted assistant. In the same way, for someone with a hearing impairment, reasonable accommodation could consist of speech-to-text converters, access to sign language interpreters, sound amplification systems, rooms in which echo is eliminated and lip-reading is possible. Similarly, for a person with dyslexia, reasonable accommodation could consist of access to computer programmes suited to meet their needs and compensatory time.
48 Failure to meet the individual needs of every disabled person will breach the norm of reasonable accommodation. Flexibility in answering individual needs and requirements is essential to reasonable accommodation. The principle contains an aspiration to meet the needs of the class of persons facing a particular disability. Going beyond the needs of the class, the specific requirement of individuals who belong to the class must also be accommodated. The principle of reasonable accommodation must also account for the fact that disability based discrimination is intersectional in nature. The intersectional features arise in particular contexts due to the presence of multiple disabilities and multiple consequences arising from disability. Disability therefore cannot be truly understood by regarding it as unidimensional. Reasonable accommodation requires the policy makers to comprehend disability in all its dimensions and to design measures which are proportionate to needs, inclusive in their reach and respecting of differences and aspirations. Reasonable accommodation cannot be construed in a way that denies to each disabled person the customization she seeks. Even if she is in a class of her own, her needs must be met. While assessing the reasonableness of an accommodation, regard must also be had to the benefit that the accommodation can have, not just for the disabled person concerned, but also for other disabled people similarly placed in future.
49 As the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities noted in General Comment 6, reasonable accommodation is a component of the principle of inclusive equality. It is a substantive equality facilitator. The establishment of this linkage between reasonable accommodation and non-discrimination thuscreates an obligation of immediate effect. 27 Under this rights-based and disabled- centric conceptualization of reasonable accommodation, a failure to provide reasonable accommodation constitutes discrimination. Reasonable accommodation determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the disabled person concerned. Instead of making assumptions about how the relevant barriers can be tackled, the principle of reasonable accommodation requires dialogue with the individual concerned to determine how to tackle the barrier.”
(Vikash Kumar vs Union Public Service Commission, Decided on 11 February, 2021, By THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA, Civil Appeal No. 273 of 2021/Special Leave Petition (C) No. 1882 of 2021.)