The Supreme Court expressed concerns about the conditions of disabilities falling within certain defined categories and the need for meeting the criteria of “benchmark disabilities” under the Right to Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act 2016.
While hearing a case of a person with colour blindness who was denied appointment in the post of Assistant Electrical Engineer in the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO), the Court stated that these conditions were creating barriers and thus, advocated the need to adopt a different yardstick while expressing concerns about the conditions of disabilities falling within certain defined categories and meeting the criteria of “benchmark disabilities” under the RPwD Act.
RPwD and Empowering Persons with Disabilities
The court, applying the principle of “reasonable accommodation”, granted relief to the appellant. It highlighted that the provisions of the RPwD Act are specifically designed to foster empowerment of Persons with Disabilities.
However, the Court pointed out that the benefits arising from affirmative action are unfortunately confined to a specific category of PwDs, including those with orthopaedic, visual, hearing, and mental disabilities. These benefits are linked to the concept of “benchmark” disabilities, which grants affirmative action and similar benefits to PWDs who meet a defined criteria of disability, generally 40 percent or more. This distinction based on specified categories and conditions, creates substantial barriers, according to the court.
The Court emphasised the necessity of a more inclusive approach to accommodate individuals who may not categorically fit into the PWDs.
It opined that the facts of this case demonstrated that the appellant was fit to discharge the duties attached to the post he applied and was selected for. Yet, he was denied the position, for being “disabled” due to the fact that he is colour blind.
Despite this, he does not fit the category of PwD under the categories prescribed within the Act. These requirements challenge the traditional understandings of what constitutes “disabilities”. The court, therefore, travelled beyond the provisions of the Act and distinguished a principle that could be rationally applied.
Background of the case
In this case, (Mohamed Ibrahim v. Managing Director) the division bench comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Justice Aravind Kumar was hearing an appeal against the Madras HC judgement, which had ruled in favour of the respondent TANGEDCO which asserted its right to reject the appellant’s candidature on grounds of colour blindness.
The case revolved around a job application for the position of Assistant Engineer by the appellant, who initially qualified for the role, but was subsequently found to be colour blind during a medical examination. This raised concerns about his ability to fulfil the responsibilities associated with the position as it frequently involved working with colour-coded power cables and wires.
As a result of these concerns, TANGEDCO rejected the appellant’s candidature and the appellant challenged this decision under Article 226 of the Constitution.
The Madras HC overturned its initial verdict favouring the appellant, by noting that TANGEDCO had not explicitly indicated “colour vision deficiency”, in any form or degree, as a disqualifying factor for the role of an Assistant Engineer.
The Court relied on Jeeja Ghosh v. Union of India (2016), Ravinder Kumar Dhariwal v. Union of India (2021), and Vikash Kumar v. Union Public Service Commission (2021) to conclude that practical experience during the course exposed the candidate to equipment defects and solutions for breakdowns and thus, it established the need for some form of accommodation.
It also referenced Ashutosh Kumar v. Film and Television Institute of India (2022), where the Court directed the FTII to accommodate students with colour blindness.
The Court finally concluded that while TANGEDCO’s concerns about colour vision impairment were acknowledged by the Court, the organisation was reminded of its obligation to operate within the framework of “reasonable accommodation” as defined by Section 2(y).