His exact remarks were,
”The tests that serve as entry points to enter the legal profession, most notably the CLAT are set out in a way that does not account for the unique challenges faced by disabled test-takers and places them in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis their able-bodied counterparts”
More specifically he referred to the questions in the CLAT that required spatial and visual understanding to answer the questions.
In 2019 the CLAT Consortium announced the changed format of the Common Law Admission Test. The questions are now drafted in a comprehension format wherein maths section is based on interpretation of graphs and figures.
As a model study let us look at the CLAT 2020 UG exam paper.
The 2020 paper in total had 15 questions under the “Quantitative Technique” category. These questions constituted 10% of the total paper.
For illustration these were the graphs provided in the paper for candidates to interpret:
The above diagrams are not easily comprehendible by audio visual softwares.
The CLAT Consortium was quick to respond to the observation made by the Hon’ble Justice.
The President of the Consortium remarked that,
“The Consortium believes in giving level playing field for all candidates. It would never deny equality of opportunity to anyone.”
Though the move is a welcome one, we should not lose sight of the fact that it took one of the senior most Judges of the Apex Court to highlight the ever-present issue.
It only validates the hypothesis of ‘after thought” i.e. accommodative measures are never given priority. It is only after interference that the Authorities see the de facto discrimination meted out against disabled community.
The only accommodation provided by the CLAT Consortium is that candidates with disability are allowed an extra 40 minutes “compensatory period” and to bring their own scribe. Such scribe should be one level lower than the candidate taking exam in terms of educational qualification.
This narrow approach of accommodation is however troublesome for it creates dependence where there is none. For instance many visually impaired and blind people never actually rely on scribe but rather depend upon the technology such as braille screen or JAWS.
This imposes a disproportionate disadvantage on the Person with Disabilities who have to endure or adapt to a whole new setup and become accustomed to something they are not.
Reasonable accommodation is not an overarching principle but rather an individualised one i.e. unlike substantive equality here an individual is kept at the centre rather than a homogenous group.
Section 2(y) of the Rights of Person with Disabilities Act 2016 (RPD Act) defines “reasonable accommodation” as:
“...means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments, without imposing a disproportionate or undue burden in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise of rights equally with others’(Emphasis intended)
Additionally, S.16(iii) of the RPD Act dealing with the education of the disabled people casts an obligation on educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodation according to the “individual’s needs”. Such obligation doesn’t extend after admission stage but also during admission stage.
The CLAT, since its inception in 2008, possessed Graphical question that weren’t accessible to visually impaired candidates. The old format had “Logical reasoning” and “Mathematics” section which often used graphs and diagrams related to positioning reasoning, printed equations etc to test candidates’ aptitude.
There were an incessant attempts to ask CLAT to show more accommodating stance which they have repeatedly failed to do. Many National Law Universities granting admission through CLAT have also repeatedly failed to provide the mandated minimum reservation of 5% under the RPD Act.
In 2018 Department of empowerment of Person with Disabilities of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment issued Guidelines for conducting written examination for persons with benchmark disabilities 2018 (2018 guidelines).
These guidelines replaced the 2013 guidelines which was issued under the erstwhile Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection for Rights and Fun Participation) Act, 1995. The policy mandates a uniform and comprehensive policy for examination of both regular and competitive exams.
The following guidelines address the issue being dealt and are self illustrative in nature:
VIII. Persons with benchmark disabilities should be given, as far as possible, the option of choosing the mode for taking the examinations i.e. in Braille or in the computer or in large print or even by recording the answers as the examining bodies can easily make use of technology to convert question paper in large prints. e-text, or Braille and can also convert Braille text in English or regional languages.
IX. In case, the persons with benchmark disabilities arc allowed to take examination on computer system, they should he allowed to check the computer system one day in advance so that the problems, if any in the software/system could be rectified. Use of own computer/laptop should not be allowed for taking examination. However, enabling accessories for the computer based examinations such as keyboard, customized mouse etc should be allowed.
XIII. The candidates should be allowed to use assistive devices like talking calculator (in cases where calculators are allowed for giving exams), tailor frame, Brame slate, abacus. geometry kit, Braille measuring tape and augmentative communication devices like communication chart and electronic devices.”
The fight for inclusion of disabled in the mainstream has been a long and tough battle. Judiciary paved the way for inclusion of disabled people in the most reputed fields from services like Indian Administrative Services to medical admission.
It is ironical that Judiciary as a third wing of the state is in itslef one of the most inaccessible branch. This exclusion travels from the very bottom (taking CLAT & other law entrance exams) to appointment of judges (for instance Surendra Mohan case).
The CLAT Consortium after thought, though late, is a sparkle of hope for change. It can derive inspiration from western states for their method of accommodation.
For instance, the Law School Admission Council Policy on Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities upon registration of candidates provide multiple accommodations that are not just restricted to mere extension of time.
1. A candidate may ask for a digital or paper-and-pencil mode for taking the exam.
2. A candidate can request for Braille version of the test.
3. A candidate with low vision may ask for large size printed test book.
4. A candidate may also be allowed to use their own computer equipment in order to utilize screen reader, magnification, text-to-speech, or other software.
5. A candidate may also write to LSAC regarding any specific accommodation need at the designated test centre.
The Educational Testing Agency conducting Graduation Record Examination (GRE) provides its own detailed accommodation measures for Disabled test takers. Test takers are able to take the GRE General Test with JAWS (screen reader) with or without a refreshable braille device.
These features are offered at GRE test centres in the United States and other countries. ETA provides preparation material in accessible format. Apart from the above measures each candidate can have its own specific accommodation by applying before the test which shall be provided at the examination centre.
The CLAT Consortium can inspect our own domestic rules to find answers to its query of accessibility. The 2018 guidelines apart from just advocating for proper environment for competitive examination, also suggests:
XV. As far as possible, the examining body should also provide reading material in Braille or E-Text or on computers having suitable screen reading software for open hook examination. Similarly online examination should be in accessible format i.e. websites, question papers and all other study material should be accessible as per the international standards laid down in this regard
XVl. Alternative. objective questions in lieu of descriptive questions should be provided for Hearing-Impaired persons, in addition to the existing policy of giving alternative questions in lieu of questions requiring visual inputs, for persons with Visual Impairment,
Disabled people have their own realities which may appear distant from “normal” and thus result in ableism. The ignorance of able-bodied people of this reality often leads to conflicting of realities. Thus what one might presume of an act of hardship may just be a normal practice in this reality.
This can be illustrated by an instance of a blind woman who is finding it hard to find buttons on an elevator is just another way of learning to navigate.
The purpose for highlighting this to drive a point that in an attempt to make CLAT more accessible the concerned authorities should have disabled people in their decision making body and not just few able-bodied people who think they can empathize enough.
It is befitting to conclude with the quote of Justice Chandrachud in the same session when he said:
"Much of the work is on confronting the disabilities of the mind of those who are not physically disabled. We have to confront the disabilities of our own minds."
(The author is a final-year student at the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow)