Fighting for a fair deal

The armed forces must do more for differently abled personnel

Generals Ian Cardozo, Pankaj Joshi and Vijay Oberoi are luminaries of the Indian army, for they attained that rank and served in the frontline toughing it out on prosthetic legs.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen, by the very nature of their occupation, are prone to physical injuries, the severest form being spinal cord injury. The conditions — paraplegia (paralysis waist down) and quadriplegia (paralysis neck down) — sentence the victim to lifelong wheelchair mobility.

Given the nature of the profession, the armed forces need to maintain a fit profile. However, not every soldier needs to be in the trenches; the organisation has to deploy a mini-army in the offices to oil the wheels. So, instead of sidelining hors de combat soldiers, they can be retrained for sedentary tasks and made useful cogs in the machine, especially in a computer-driven workplace.

While the norm in the armed forces was to out the spinal-cord-injured personnel, in the early 1990s, realising the worth of his experience and utility to the service, the air force reversed its policy and retained Wing Commander Ashok Limaye, a paraplegic. The army followed suit, thus setting in motion the employment and rehab of wheelchair-bound officers within the services itself.

Beginning with amputees, it expanded to embracing worse-off paraplegics, and this initiative came years before Parliament gave the differently abled community its first sniff of empowerment through the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

Section 47 of the disability act, its high-water mark, is an enabling measure that proactively protects the employment of differently abled government staff. In a nutshell, it states that any employee who acquires a disability during his service has to be retained in the rolls with full pay and other dues till the age of superannuation (pension thereafter), even if he cannot be accommodated in any post. He cannot be denied promotion on the ground of his disability.

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