Having covered the evolution of the disability rights movement in India in the, we take a look at the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in the legal field, beginning with law students.
In observance of World Minorities’ Day, it is pertinent to bring to light challenges faced one of the largest unrecognized minority groups in India. As per the 2011 census, during which time only 7 disabilities were recognized, persons with disabilities constituted 2.21% of the total population.
While delivering the seminal Vikash Kumar judgment in 2021, the Supreme Court envisaged creating an "RPwD (Rights of Persons with Disabilities) Generation" on the lines of the ADA Generation in the United States of America. This generation of disabled people, the Court envisioned,
"...regards as its birthright access to the full panoply of constitutional entitlements, robust statutory rights geared to meet their unique needs and conducive societal conditions needed for them to flourish and to truly become co-equal participants in all facets of life."
However, since the passing of the RPwD Act, 2016 and the many progressive judgments since, there continues to remain many a slip between the cup and the lip for persons with disabilities in realizing and effectuating their rights. Their realities are starkly disconnected from statutes and judicial pronouncements, a reflection of the complacency that is deep-rooted in a system that considers shifting from the status quo as an act of benevolence rather than a step towards realisation of rights.
Without an empirical study of the situation on the ground, disability rights and stakeholders of the movement will only be seen as titular subject matters for academic literature.
To this end, we conducted a survey in which 40 students with disabilities from across 18 traditional and National Law Universities participated. The participants shared instances of being at the receiving end of an ableist mindset which perpetuated indirect discrimination against them as a minority group.
This article will take a close look at the academic and infrastructural challenges faced by students with disabilities in law schools with the hope that the authorities do their part in addressing the disconnect between policy and implementation.
One of the main facets of the RPwD Act, 2016 is the vision to provide for necessary modifications that enable PwDs to exercise their rights equally. While the 2016 Act provides for reservations in higher education, it is devoid of policy directions to authorities at higher educational institutes to give meaning to the concept of reasonable accommodation. The international framework from which the Act draws inspiration - Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) - requires that individualized support measures are provided and discrimination is eliminated to facilitate effective education for PwDs at all levels so as to maximize their overall development. On a closer look, not much of this is put into practice in our law schools. As per the survey, 65% students have faced challenges on the academic and classroom front
In furtherance of realizing rights of the disabled, some NLUs have been taking proactive measures to make reading material accessible to students with disabilities. With National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore pioneering the move to , efforts are being made to scan all books along with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) searchability. OCR software helps recognize text from scanned copies or digital images.
A visually impaired student from NLSIU, however, expressed difficulty in keeping pace with academics owing to inaccessible materials.
“Many teaching materials like slides or other displays on the board, reading materials etc., are inaccessible. With voluminous class readings, most of which are not screen reader accessible, it is difficult to equally participate in discussions.”
A similar predicament is faced by another student from National Law University, Jodhpur who has trouble accessing reading material.
West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS) launched the in collaboration with IDIA with state-of-the-art Braille devices. With its inauguration just before the global pandemic, students have reported of having barely benefited from it. A student with visual impairment revealed that although the labs were instituted in 2019 with the help of proactive efforts from the IDIA team, they weren’t fully functional then. After classes resumed post the pandemic, the labs were understaffed with little to no institutional support.
“The legal databases continue to be largely inaccessible. All the devices were made available through the Accessibility Lab, but the screen readers posed a navigation problem and the staff wasn’t equipped to teach us how to use these devices. The study materials are also in scanned form which is inaccessible,” the student shared.
The University’s initiative to set up the Accessibility Lab had a positive ripple effect, with other universities like . Participants from NALSAR expressed the relief that came with the institution of Accessibility Lab. A visually impaired student mentioned that the devices used in the Lab at NALSAR are of better quality than those used in other universities. Notwithstanding some teething issues, like the process being slow, the student mentioned that for old books that cannot be scanned, the University has outsourced the typing work to outsiders.
University Institute of Legal Studies (UILS), Panjab University is currently said to be putting together resources for an Accessibility Lab after a student put forth demand charters and memorandums to request for pearl cameras, reading software and other devices necessary for visually impaired students.
Students of NALSAR shared the difficulties faced during classes of family law and economics, where professors rely heavily on PPTs which have diagrams, pictorial representations or calculations.
“Professors do not read or explain suitably for us to follow. If PPTs are given in advance that would also help. Inaccessibility of modules custom-designed by teachers for some courses which are not readable by the software is another challenge.”
Resonating with this, a National Law University, Delhi student said that there was a lack of OCR software and usage of PDFs which are not given the OCR treatment.
99% visually impaired students interviewed across law schools faced similar problems with PPTs and notes on the board not being read out or explained to them. Participants from WBNUJS, Government Law College (GLC), Mumbai and NALSAR shared the need for professors to be trained to conduct classes suitable for students with disabilities. To participate in classroom exercises and discussions, visually-impaired students find it difficult to use their devices with the talk-back feature, which disturbs other students in class.
For a better academic experience, students from GLC Mumbai, Chanakya National Law University (CNLU) and UILS expressed the need for ‘Braille Me’ devices (a device which helps with reading, taking notes and editing files, among other functions), and for digital software to be updated. Having notes and question papers in accessible formats is also desired for ease in self-studying.
Another visually impaired student from WBNUJS hailing from a vernacular background shared his diffidence in clarifying doubts in class owing to language barriers. They also expressed the dire lack of an EQ among college staff and their peer group who understand little about responding to the visually impaired.
Broadly speaking on legal education and the issue of accessibility, Tapas Bhardwaj, a visually-impaired lawyer and founder of Raindrops Foundation said,
“When I say books are not in an accessible format, it does not mean that there are no law books accessible, but law is an evolutionary field. How can we synchronize updates in law books in an accessible format is a question. For moot courts, the memorials have to be in a certain format. Are moot court judges willing to provide reasonable accommodation for visually impaired students? If a mooter has a speech disability and is speaking slowly, can the jury express their accommodation allowing the student to express in a way that is comfortable to them? It just requires sensitivity and acceptance of persons with disabilities as a whole in the legal fraternity. What about sign language interpreters, do we even have any sign language interpreters in any law school? When conducting classes and relying on PPTs, it depends on how you explain concepts. The concept of reasonable accommodation is for all formalities to be made in a way which is acceptable by all.”
As per the survey, 67% students experienced some form of physical or infrastructural barriers on campus. The table below gives a bird’s eye view of the situation across law schools.
A student of Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University (RMLNLU) Lucknow with spina bifida shared the poor condition of ramps on campus.
"Till 2019, the college didn't have any ramps/lifts except one ramp that was almost non-functional. Pushing the wheelchair with weak limbs on a granite road is another task in itself, for which I was dependant on a helper. When I requested for accommodations, the standard response I got was - 'We haven't seen a student with as major a disability as hers, therefore it's taking us time'...The water coolers are built with a small stair to it, because of this I always have to rely on someone to have water."
The issue of ramps and dysfunctional lifts were also experienced by students of National Law Institute University (NLIU) Bhopal, NLSIU, NLU Jodhpur, Maharashtra National Law University (MNLU) Nagpur, GLC Mumbai and UILS.
At NALSAR, while tactile tiles have been installed in one of the boys' hostels, parts of the campus still remain largely inaccessible. Lack of symbols indicating stairs, and lack of audio-visual signage on campus is another challenge widely faced by participants of the survey.
A student with hearing impairment from NLU Jodhpur shared their difficulty in following classroom lectures and their apprehension in asking for special considerations.
"There was only one instance when I requested for some financial assistance during my first year so that I could get a receiver for my hearing aid. This would help augment the voice of the person with the receiver to directly reach my aids. So my audiologist had suggested to give this to the professors during the lectures. However, though they had agreed initially, the admins later on denied my request."
As evident from the responses to the survey, there seems to be a culture of ‘institutionalized ableism' in our law schools. Students with special needs are expected to thrive in an infrastructural setup that is built predominantly for persons without disabilities.
As June Jordan conveys in Affirmative Acts,
'Forms of domination sometimes wear the mask of neutrality and color blindness to hide the systemic nature of institutionalized racism…'
The Supreme Court is Vikash Kumar recognized that for persons with disabilities to live with equal dignity and worth, it is crucial that they are provided the additional support and facilities necessary to mitigate the impact of their disabilities. It is high time that law schools devise solutions in consultation with students with disabilities to make their campuses more disability-friendly.