Healthcare industry in India may need an accessibility check

Disability activists urge the healthcare industry to take a note of the rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 before it is too late. The healthcare industry in India has systematically ignored people with disabilities and their specific needs. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that the healthcare industry has not just ignored people with disabilities, but it has actively discriminated against them.

Many of you will find my opening remarks ironic, perhaps a bit provocative and baseless, but stay with me and you will discover the truth in it. All people with disabilities, like their non-disabled counterparts, too, have the same general health care needs as everyone else, and therefore need access to mainstream health care services.  Having said that, they find extremely difficult to access healthcare services in India.
Let me substantiate this by giving a few examples:
• Inaccessible built-environment: Most hospitals and healthcare centers do not comply with accessibility standards. Just have a look around and you will notice a battery of healthcare facilities including hospitals, OPD clinics, diagnostics centers, laboratories completely ignoring the accessibility standards for built-environment. Except for a handful, most facilities don’t have appropriate ramps or an accessible toilet to aid persons using wheelchair.
• Insensitive staff: While the healthcare professionals are competent in diagnosing and treating disease. The staff across the administration, nursing, practitioners and so on are often insensitive to the needs and rights of persons with disability. According to the World Health Organization: People with disabilities were more than twice as likely to report finding healthcare provider skills inadequate to meet their needs, four times more likely to report being treated badly and nearly three times more likely to report being denied care. As a blind person myself, I can’t imagine going to a hospital alone for a quick check as my request for assistance is often reciprocated either with uncomfortable arguments around their inability to provide assistance or pity on my perceived “unfortunate condition”.
• Inaccessible equipment’s: Most healthcare facilities don’t have medical equipment’s which are accessible for persons with disabilities. Imagine, the most ubiquitous examination-beds in every doctor’s OPDs are at a height where a person in a wheelchair can’t transfer themselves easily. Almost all large hospitals and branded Clinics often don’t have something as basic as a weighing scale for a person using a wheelchair. Extend this argument to other sophisticated equipment’s such as the X-ray, MRI etc. and you will realize how profound the problem is.
• Inaccessible digital interfaces: Websites of many healthcare companies are not designed keeping Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 in mind. The diagnostics reports which often come in PDF format are often not accessible to screen readers. The new-age apps used to book appointments and purchase pharmaceutical products are not accessible.
• Inaccessibility of services. The lack of appropriate services for people with disabilities is a significant barrier to health care. Imagine, even the emergency services can’t be invoked by the deaf or deaf-blind independently as no hospitals are trained to communicate on SMS.
• Limited to non-existent health insurance coverage. Getting a Health insurance is nothing less than an ordeal. Many disabled people are declined of health coverage on the pretext of their disability. Further, no retail healthcare policy in India covers congenital defects.
• No admissions to medical colleges. So far, Students with disabilities couldn’t have aspired to take medicine as their career. The Medical Council of India (MCI) did not allow students with a disability to study medicine, leading into several ugly court battles. Picture this, several countries boast of deaf nurses, deaf doctors, and even deaf surgeons, but MCI didn’t find them skilled enough. However, there is a positive news and hope for change. More on that in a bit.
The bottom line is that healthcare in India is not yet ready to treat disability as something that can be a part of everyday life. As a result, both the lifespan and the quality of life of disabled people are impacted and is generally poor. However, there is a glimmer of hope.
With the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPD Act) passed by Parliament in 2016, shall perhaps usher the much-needed change. The Act is applicable to all establishments including all government and the private sector.  And, it doesn’t take much to understand that no one is above the law of the land.
Clearly, the healthcare sector can’t shy away. Even the mighty MCI is now seeming to relent under the power of new law. After innumerable court battles escalating up to the Supreme Court, MCI has now notified, in November 2017, that it will allow 21 categories of disabled candidates including severely disabled candidates to take next year’s graduate and post-graduate medical courses. Only time will testify how much of this notification is followed in action and spirit.
The RPD Act has been brought in force to honor the principles of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Article 25 of the UN CRPD emphasizes the right of persons with disabilities to attain the highest standard of healthcare, without discrimination.
The World Health Organization estimates that 15 percent of the world’s population is affected by one disability or another. The RPD Act increases the number of recognized disabilities to 21 from seven. With this, the official count will obviously rise and, by conservative estimates, that figure could be as high as 100 million. Can we imagine the healthcare sector ignoring such a large populous?

Dr. Vikram Venkateswaran

Management Thinker, Marketer, Healthcare Professional Communicator and Ideation exponent

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