Guwahati: In a first, the Gauhati High Court earlier last month ordered the Assam government and a private gym to pay Rs 50,000 each as penalty for discriminatory treatment to a differently-abled person.
Justice Ujjal Bhuyan passed the judgment on a 2011 writ petition filed by Arman Ali, the then executive director of NGO Shishu Sarothi. Ali had accused Gold’s Gym, an American fitness chain, of making unreal demands for membership; including doctors’ certificates from both his physician as well as orthopeadician. In order to discourage him, Ali was made to undergo a rigorous workout plan.
Ali further said that he was subject to humiliation and ignominy by members of the staff and other users. He said, “I was almost treated like an untouchable and they used all tactics to discourage me. The final straw was their offer of a month-long conditional membership with charges equivalent to an annual membership.”
Ali, now executive director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), had gained weight because of cerebral palsy. As per medical advice to reduce weight and enhance stamina, he visited Gold’s Gym in Ganeshguri, Guwahati, where, upon interaction with the staff members, he found their approach unfriendly. After exchange of emails and a couple of visits later, the gym finally informed him that he could avail of their facilities, but at an additional fee. Aggrieved by the discriminatory treatment, Ali wrote to Ware and Wants Trading, which denied any such conduct.
Referring to the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 and its successor , the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which have equal opportunities and non-discrimination as its fulcrum, Justice Ujjal Bhuyan also made a reference to Section 29 of Chapter VIII of the RPWD Act which casts a duty on appropriate governments to conduct, encourage, support or promote awareness campaigns and sensitisation programmes to ensure rights of specially-abled persons were protected.
The order called Ware and Wants Trading’s response affidavit “quite pathetic” and the state social welfare department’s reply “still more pathetic”. It said that the state was trying to “evade responsibility.”
Justice Bhuyan also directed the state government to ensure that all officers and employees of the social welfare department undergo training and awareness programmes and campaigns in terms of Section 39 of the 2016 Act in accordance with the commissioner of persons with disabilities, Assam, and Assam State Legal Services Authority. He has also instructed that the commissioner and secretary to the Assam government, social welfare department to immediately chalk out a detailed programme to give effect to the directive.
Also, they were instructed to issue general circulars to all government and private establishments highlighting the salient features of the 2016 Act and to ensure that public buildings and public facilities and services are made accessible by persons with disabilities. Such instructions are to be issued within two months from the date of receipt of the said order.
Likewise, the penalty of Rs 50,000 each is to be paid by Gold’s Gym and the Assam government to Shishu Sarothi, which will be used for the benefit of specially-abled children attending classes there.
On the judgment, Ali said, “This judgment makes the private sector accountable for all their services. All private sector service providers must have a clear cut policy for people with disabilities. This is now a law of the land and people with disabilities will not take it lying down any longer.”