Tribalism has always been a defining characteristic of human society, regardless of its progress through the ages and realms of knowledge. We still tend to gather in groups based on certain common characteristics and differentiate ourselves with others who do not share these traits.
The social stigma, similarly, that we attach with the differently-abled is triggered by our deep-seated fear of the other. According to the United Nations, over a billion people form the world's largest minority — they live with some kind of disability. And India is home to around 70 million of them.
As the Supreme Court pointed out during its landmark 12 May judgement ordering budget airlines SpiceJet to pay Rs 10 lakh as damages to disability rights activist Jeeja Ghosh, we who consider ourselves as "abled", treat those who are differently-abled as second-class citizens. They are forced to confront segregation, discrimination, barriers and rampant stereotyping.
The spunky Ghosh, who has taken cerebral palsy in her stride, was offloaded from a SpiceJet flight in February 2012 from Kolkata when she was going to attend a conference in Goa hosted by NGO ADAPT (Able Disable All People Together).
It would be easy to pick on the airlines but the bitter truth is, SpiceJet accurately reflected the society that it is a part of. In March last year, Nipun Malhotra, who was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder, was denied entry into an upscale Delhi eatery.
This January, a woman flyer suffering from physical disability had to allegedly "crawl" to the passenger coach after deboarding an Air India plane as the carrier failed to arrange a wheel chair for her due to "security" reasons, a charge denied by the airline.
While delivering the ruling on Jeeja, the apex court said: "A little care, a little sensitivity and a little positive attitude on the part of the officials of the airlines would not have resulted in the trauma, pain and suffering that she had to undergo."
In an emailed interview to Firstpost, Jeeja, who's the head of Advocacy and Disability Studies at Kolkata's Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP), called the Supreme Court judgment an "eye-opener".
How do you interpret the court judgment?
This is a historic judgment for the disability sector. It is a reflection of the sensitivity of the judges. The compensation (Rs 10 lakh) is definitely an important part. We hope that all other airlines will take this judgment seriously and think twice before they harass persons with disabilities according to their whims. The judgment also brings in systemic changes in the airlines regulations which were much called for. I am really excited not because it is my victory, but it is the victory for all the disabled community.
Could you recall the insensitivity and the indignity you suffered in 2012 when SpiceJet forced you to deboard?
On 19 February, I was scheduled to attend a conference in Goa organised by ADPAT, Mumbai. I was travelling by Spice jet flight number SG 308 from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport in Kolkata. I reached the airport at 7.05 am, checked in as usual and was escorted to the flight by an assistant. I was comfortably seated. After a while I sensed a commotion around me and had the intuition that something was not quite right. One of the flight assistants asked for my boarding pass which I provided. I was then asked to leave my seat and go with them. I was made to de-board the flight, put in a car and bought back to the airport.
By this time, I became hysterical. I was not given any specific reason why I was forcibly deplaned. I was then taken to airline's office and through the course of my argument I learned that it was the captain, Utprabh Tiwari, who actually had a problem because I was a person with disability. The assistant manager and the other personnel appeared empathetic but they said they said they were helpless as their attempt to convince the captain had failed.
I demanded that they should allow me to either board another flight or return the money. The assistant manager, Vishnu Ramesan, said that I could take a flight the day after (20 February, 2012). I challenged him to assure me that a similar incident would not be repeated. He said that he had spoken to the higher authorities and action would be taken. I asked him to provide me a written statement stating the reason for making me de-board the flight which they refused to give for obvious reasons. However, they accepted a written complaint from me. I was totally traumatized and almost had a nervous breakdown.
During the protracted court battle, who stood beside you?
I got support from a lot of people — both family and well-wishers. Colin Gonsalvis from the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) stood by me. I had worked with them as a team member of their Kolkata office from 2008 to 2010. My ex-colleagues Rajive Raturi and Divyajyoti Jaipuria played important roles in fighting the case. Friends from the disability sector were always with me. The IICP, where I work at present, gave me the encouragement. And last but by no means the least, my husband Bappaditya Nag stood by me. He was the main impetus in this fight.
How will this rule impact those who are prejudiced?
I hope this judgment serves as an eye-opener to all.
How do you plan to take the momentum of this judgment forward?
This is a very progressive judgment. However the onus lies on us in the disability sector and our allies to ensure that the judgment is properly interpreted and implemented. Let me tell all those like me, never give up. It is difficult as most don't have the resources but still one should continue the fight.
Updated Date: May 16, 2016 12:40 PM