The (Dis)ability to Drive

Despite some long overdue amendments, laws in India still make it hard for disabled persons to drive their own vehicles.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that the word “divyang” (divine body) be used to describe persons with disabilities instead of “viklang” (handicapped). The move was lauded by many, but was actually symptomatic of the regulatory approach to disabled persons: it was merely window dressing. Disabled persons have long been discriminated against in India, and one area in which they suffer extremely is access, whether it be to buildings, public transport, or private transport. While easing access to the first two requires infrastructural changes that might take years to implement, enabling disabled persons to easily drive modified personal vehicles merely requires new laws. These have subsequently arrived in the form of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (the RPWDA) and the recently passed Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Before you heave a sigh of relief, here’s the dampener: despite having corrected some of the earlier shortcomings, the new laws still lag behind international standards of enabling access.

Previously, disabled persons were required to jump through a nebulous course of regulatory hoops if they wanted to drive themselves. This largely stemmed from the fact that the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (the MVA) only allowed disabled persons to drive “invalid carriages,” which were defined as vehicles “specially designed and constructed” for the use of disabled persons and “not merely adapted.” But there was a lack of clarity as to what this meant in reality, as features in cars suited for certain disabled persons (for example, automatic transmissions) were not recognised as such. This ambiguity, plus a general lack of supply of specially manufactured vehicles (like those with a hand-clutch system), forced disabled persons to resort to modifying their vehicles. While the MVA did have provisions for the alteration of vehicles, they did not specifically deal with invalid carriages. This left disabled persons in a regulatory limbo where they were subject to the whims of individual RTOs, despite the best efforts of courts.

The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill thankfully addresses this shortcoming by replacing “invalid carriage” with “adapted vehicle” and specifically linking adapted vehicles to the provisions on alteration of vehicles. Disabled persons can now modify their own cars as long as they follow conditions prescribed by the Central Government. So this should mean that disabled persons should now find driving personal vehicles smooth sailing, right?

Sadly, no. Disabled people find that their right to drive vehicles is still curtailed. Despite adapted vehicles being described as a “class of vehicle” in the Act, the licence of a disabled person is inexplicably tied to one single adapted vehicle. This means a disabled person can only drive the modified car registered to their licence and cannot legally drive another car, even if it has identical modifications.

But this is only the beginning of the problem with the concept of adapted vehicles. As it is described as a separate class of vehicles under the MVA (different from light/heavy motor vehicles or geared/ungeared motor cycles) it renders co-ownership of cars illegal. A couple or a family with one disabled person is forced into buying two vehicles in order to legally drive them, even if the other members are capable of driving the modified vehicle.

The “adapted vehicles” approach to enabling access also suffers from a one-size-fits-all approach to disability. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 increased the number of recognised disabilities from 7 to 21, so ideally there should be sub-classes of adapted vehicles to cater to different disabilities like locomotor disability (e.g. amputation and polio) and dwarfism. After all, the modifications that Jaime Lannister would need on his vehicle would widely differ from Tyrion’s. Even within locomotor disability (the category most people think of when it comes to disabled drivers), there is great variance. For example, left-leg amputees should be able to drive any car with automatic transmission, as the lack of a clutch pedal means that they are just as capable as non-disabled people.

Although some of the ambiguities regarding personal transport for disabled persons seem to have been addressed in the new laws, the situation is still a long drive away from international standards. Take, for example, the case of right-leg amputees. In India, they are required to install a hand-operated brake and accelerator, a modification that is permanently attached to the car, which is in turn attached to the amputee’s licence. However, in the USA, the license for right-leg amputees only requires the use of a left foot accelerator, a movable contraption that is easily available and can be used in any car (including rentals).

There is also a major problem with the process of applying for a license; it would be fairly obvious to say that the process to get a driver’s licence for a disabled person should involve less running (/wheeling) around than that for someone who’s non-disabled. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Disabled drivers need to have the following in place before they even apply for a learner’s licence:

(1) a certificate of disability from a specified municipal hospital.
(2) a certificate with suggested vehicular modifications from another institute.
(3) a modified car that they have either bought or transferred in their own name.

Once they’re at the RTO with all the necessary paperwork (all of which could take up to a year to acquire), they have to pass a Wipe Out-esque obstacle course (presumably with an escort’s help), overcoming clueless officials and long stairwells to finally get their licences.

If all this talk of unending gloom has got you down, worry not, the conclusion is simple. The Central government is yet to issue the conditions for the alteration of vehicles that must be legally followed. It would be best if it did so at the soonest, but not before taking adequate consultation and research about best practices. While doing this, it is also important that they simplify the procedure for disabled persons to get their licences made. The onus will be on the National and State Commissions for Disability set up by the RPWDA to advise governments on how to achieve this to fall in line with the RPWDA’s own provisions on access to transport. It’s about time the government streamlined things to the extent that disabled people’s biggest worry about getting a driver’s licence is how they look in their photos.

About the author

Madhav Chandavarkar

Madhav Chandavarkar is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. He earned a 5 year degree in law from Symbiosis Law School only to discover he didn't want to be a (practising) lawyer. His interests include free speech, constitutional law and pop culture.