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Disability sensitisation under focus after Centre's asks Uber India to train drivers

The Centre's directive to Uber India to act against the drivers who harassed disability rights activist Arman Ali is a first of its kind move. Will it finally push service providers into being more sensitive to the needs of disabled people?

Chennai-based Smitha Sadasivan describes using app based cab services as nothing short of "severe mental agony". A disability rights activist, Smitha has to travel around the city for meetings and events. She says most drivers, be it Ola or Uber, are unhelpful, rude and downright insensitive when they find out that she is a wheelchair user.

"Many drivers refuse to put a wheelchair in the back seat if it doesn't fit the boot space. Even when we book premier cars through the apps, the cars usually sent are not premier but have a smaller boot, says Smitha, who has found herself abandoned on the road or at government office entrances. "Sometime you are in a hurry to get to a meeting and it's not always possible to lodge a complaint, she adds.

Disability rights activist Arman Ali underwent similar harassment in Chennai recently at the hands of two Uber drivers. One cancelled the trip 15 minutes after verbally confirming it, while the other refused to put his wheelchair in the backseat, "pushed him out of the cab" and cancelled the trip. As a result, Arman missed his flight to Delhi and had to shell out â'¹14,000 for a fresh air ticket.

Ali shared the experience on Facebook, tagging the Prime Minister's Office and Narendra Modi himself. The post went viral on social media with many disabled people recounting similar experiences making it clear that this was not an isolated incident.

For the first time ever the government took note with the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry writing a letter to Uber India CEO asking for action against the drivers in question and to sensitise its drivers towards passengers with disabilities.

Necessary push

It's a step in the right direction, says Mumbai lawyer Amar Jain, calling it the kind of pushes the community wants to see.

"This is the first time that the ministry has taken cognisance of a matter that is a purely private affair and it sends out a strong message that discrimination against persons with disabilities will not be tolerated. Amar says that this forward looking move on the government's part will get the service industry thinking more seriously about disability sensitisation trainings.

However, Amar adds, this kind of push has happened because of the origin of the complaint. "The point is that today someone at Arman's level could push it, he has the access to government officials but if it was a common man, there's still no mechanism. Even filing a case wouldn't help because in this case it's a partner problem, not an Uber one.

Smitha says that a stronger message needs to be sent out, namely compensating Arman for the flight ticket he had to book. "Uber has to be ordered to pay Arman his flight ticket. Only then will Uber and other cab agencies take this issue seriously and bring in training sessions for drivers on handling passengers with disabilities. Otherwise, what we will see is orientation just in name.

Going forward, Dr Ketna Mehta, Founder-Trustee of Nina Foundation suggests some steps that service providers could follow to ensure such incidents do not happen again.

Service providers can have a box on their app/websites so that while booking we can tick 'Wheelchair User'. Accordingly, such a cab with a trained driver is allotted and so both users and drivers have a happy journey together. As passengers, we are paying equal fares and the onus of converging their technology, training of drivers and type of vehicle is squarely on the service provider. People with disabilities have equal rights when it comes to living a full life and any denial of this basic right is a violation. - Dr Ketna L Mehta, Founder-Trustee, Nina Foundation

Social entrepreneur Ankit Rajiv Jindal agrees and says there is a need for sustained pressure. "The more the community speaks up, the greater will be the pressure exerted on all. The onus is on us to speak out and make our voices heard".

ALSO READ:Private company penalized for discrimination on grounds of disability for the first time in India

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