Rahul Bajaj is one of the very few persons with disabilities from the legal field to be awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.
On graduating from Nagpur University in 2017, Bajaj worked with Trilegal for a year. Against all odds, the visually impaired lawyer went on to do his BCL from the University of Oxford, where he also completed his MPhil in Law.
After this, Bajaj came back to India to work as a judicial law clerk to Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court.
Soon after, he was associated with Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy as a Senior Resident Fellow. He is currently an attorney at Ira Law, an Intellectual Property (IP) and civil litigation firm.
In this conversation with Bar & Bench's Jelsyna Chacko, Bajaj shares his experience studying at Oxford, the challenges he faced throughout his education and career, and much more.
Bajaj also sheds light on how the legal fraternity can pitch in to further the cause of persons with disabilities so that there is more diversity, equity and inclusion in the profession.
Jelsyna Chacko: How was your time at Oxford? What inclusive measures were present on campus that law schools in India could also implement for persons with disabilities?
Rahul Bajaj: The advantage of being at a university like Oxford was that it was well-resourced, so they were able to provide me with reading materials in accessible formats. In law, that is a critical ingredient to succeeding. The Bodleian Law Library at Oxford has a unit that makes available reading material in accessible formats, well in time before classes.
Other than that, just in terms of providing me mobility instruction, to help me acquire a familiarity with the University and the places that I would have to frequent, and providing me support with the visual aspects of the courses that I was pursuing.
In India, the way the system works is that a disabled person is left to their own devices. If you’re resourceful and wealthy, you can provide for yourself and get the support systems that you need. Otherwise, there’s very little in the way of institutional support.
So what we can do is to have disability cells in every law school - at least every national law school - which can serve as a nodal office for disabled people to get the academic and non-academic support that they need. Another aspect is ensuring sensitization of faculty, students and the staff members, so that they know how to assist these students in the best way possible. It is not that law schools in India are not capable of providing the support, but a matter of priority that it deserves.
JC: What were the other challenges you faced on campus while accessing resources and how did you navigate those?
RB: Sometimes, there was some miscommunication in terms of the readings that they had to give me well in time before my classes, and at Oxford, the reading material is voluminous, so you have to get through a lot to meaningfully participate in a class. Sometimes, the reading material would arrive very late and I would scramble to finish it.
Other than this, my challenges at Oxford were non-academic.
I have never lived away from family, let alone in a foreign country, being able to manage everything from cooking my own food to getting around the University. While universities like Oxford are great at providing academic support, they generally do not provide non-academic support. But I was lucky to have been on the Rhodes Scholarship, so they stepped in to provide the support that I needed from time to time.
JC: How did you leverage your identity as a Rhodes Scholar to further the cause of persons with disabilities?
RB: I have been supporting these causes for a long time, whether it be making law more disability-friendly, or disability rights advocacy. A new cause that I have taken up recently is digital accessibility, in terms of making apps and websites more disabled-friendly, and encouraging other disabled people to apply for such opportunities. I think the difference that Rhodes made is that it gave me some amount of legitimacy and credibility. The Rhodes Scholarship gives you a megaphone to broadcast your message.
JC: What are your views on comparisons between persons with disabilities who have made a mark in the profession and those that haven't?
RB: I think it is very contextual. I don’t think that these comparisons are fair. The characterization of someone being iconic while the other is not, is perhaps not accurate. This is a real challenge.
In the disabled community, when some people achieve success, we tend to regard them as the benchmark, expecting everyone to follow suit, without realizing that not everyone may be able to do as well or cope as well with their disability. I think we need to work towards a situation where everyone gets the support that they need and live the lives that they want.
JC: Tell us more about the Mission Accessibility project promoting digital accessibility for persons with disabilities, and how the legal fraternity can help to further the initiative.
RB: Our lives are increasingly becoming more digital, so access to the digital marketplace is fundamental to meaningful participation in society. We tend to buy everything online nowadays and the assumption is that just because it is online it is going to be disabled-friendly and it will bridge the divide that otherwise exists in the physical world. That’s not really the case, because if websites and apps are not built with accessibility in mind, they can compound and reinforce the systems of the physical world, as opposed to breaking them down.
Therefore, with two other lawyers - one of whom is Amar Jain, a certified accessibility professional and a corporate lawyer - I have been working on this initiative to create a strategy to work constructively with apps and websites to help them become more disabled-friendly.
Digital accessibility for the disabled is a right. The idea really is to see how we can constructively engage with those service providers who would take our inputs on board, and litigate against those that are not, so that legal consequences can follow for the failure to comply with the rights that disabled people have. We are very careful with maintaining good hygiene around this: for people we litigate against, we are not going to have them as our clients or for consultancy.
The support that the legal community can provide is enormous. One aspect is funding. Another way that they can help is by working with us full time and, in sensitizing service providers about their obligations under our disability laws to make their platform accessible.
Recently, in a case I was involved in at the Court of Chief Commissioner for persons with disabilities, a lawyer for one of the big healthcare service providers remarked that they were not legally obligated to do this, but out of goodwill for me, they would do it. I was really offended, because this is a rights-based issue and not something one does out of the goodness of their heart.
JC: Do you think law schools can take more initiative, in terms of teaching Disability Law?
RB: Definitely. I believe that there’s a need to mainstream disability rights discourse in our law schools and the Bar Council can play an important role in that regard by making it a mandatory part of the curriculum.
Unfortunately, I haven't had a very good experience with the Bar Council of India. When I attempted the All India Bar Examination (AIBE) in 2017, they told me that the writer could be either someone from the 12th grade or someone from another stream. For someone who is not familiar with bare acts, this becomes difficult. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had released guidelines in 2013 which allowed writers from the same stream, provided they are one year junior to you, which is fair. But the BCI kept insisting otherwise. I wrote a representation to the then Chairperson, but nothing happened. They didn't even initially permit me to use the computer, assuming that digital devices would read out answers to me - that was their thought process.
JC: What are your views on the Draft National Policy for Persons with Disabilities released in May 2022?
RB: I have been part of several consultations on the policy and put together some comments to the government. My view on the policy is that it’s very aspirational, it makes the right noises, but it is short on substance in terms of how it is going to achieve what it sets out to do. For example, it has 18 steps that it lists down in the accessibility chapter, in terms of making sure that we make audio descriptions available, subtitling available, we make apps and websites more disabled-friendly, physical accessibility, transport accessibility, etc. But what it does not have are quantifiable parameters.
It is more in the nature of political promises rather than well-thought out guarantees to people with disabilities. The idea behind a policy of this nature is to implement the law. The law is already there. Of course, it is not perfect, but it has a lot of what we need. The policy should actually implement what the law guarantees, demand action plans from ministries in terms of how they are going to implement their mandates under the law, with quantifiable parameters and targets along with a monitoring mechanism.
JC: The disability jurisprudence evolved significantly during your time as a judicial clerk to Justice DY Chandrachud. How was your experience in this capacity?
RB: I had a really positive experience working for him. He was a model employer when it came to providing me the additional support that I needed, such as extra time to do my work, because I had to figure out how to access documents that were inaccessible to me. The one big step that he took was helping make the Supreme Court website more accessible, which earlier had an image captcha which shut me out. He also put out an instruction in his cause-list that all the documents filed in his court had to be filed in soft copy form in the native digital format. He was very open to my inputs on disability rights cases before him, in terms of research inputs, what other countries were doing, etc. So, it was quite a nice experience overall.
JC: Which approach do you think should be adopted by authorities while dealing with PwDs - an equality approach which looks at all persons from the lens of the able-bodied or the liberty approach that looks at individuals on a case-to-case basis?
RB: The latter; it has to be a case to case-based approach. This you see coming out strongly in the Supreme Court’s judgment in Vikash Kumar v UPSC, in which it was said that the context of reasonable accommodation has to be based on dialogue with the particular individual and it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, because every disabled person’s needs are different and we have to modulate our response accordingly.
One thing that is particularly disappointing is the recent judgment of the Supreme Court in a case concerning the grant of compensation to a person with a permanent disability. He came to the Supreme Court saying that the amount of compensation awarded to him was inadequate. He was rendered permanently disabled at the age of 5 by the virtue of a motor accident. The Supreme Court, while increasing the compensation, made some rather unfortunate remarks about the capabilities of disabled legal professionals, which said that physical fitness is essential to be a proficient advocate, and that since this person was disabled, he couldn’t perform as well as a “normal lawyer” in terms of discharging his everyday responsibilities.
One thing that is problematic about it is the use of this language, which is very unfortunate. This is something that the Supreme Court talks about in Vikash Kumar in a segment called the ‘the language of our discourse’, where they say that we should use dignity-affirming language to refer to people with disabilities. If it is the case that the court itself admits that people with disabilities have such a hard time navigating the legal profession, then shouldn’t the court itself take responsibility for it and do something about it? Nowadays, we follow the social model of disability, which says that society is equally responsible for the barriers that exist on the path of a disabled person. So, if it is the case that our courtrooms are not navigable by disabled people, then what the Supreme Court is doing about it on the physical accessibility front is something that they need to introspect upon.
JC: Why do you think there are such few lawyers with disabilities? What needs be done to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal fraternity?
RB: This will require a multi-pronged approach.
First of all, we need to make it clear to people in school that for students with disability, law is a viable career option. That with appropriate support, they can succeed as legal professionals even with disabilities. We need to make the CLAT exam more disabled-friendly. Justice Chandrachud had brought this up in a speech that he gave in December 2020 and Professor Faizan Mustafa, who was then the Convenor of the CLAT NLU Consortium, also took it up. I read a report that said that the 2021 iteration of the exam was disabled-friendly from the perspective of the visually-challenged. That’s great to see, but it should continue and not be a one-off thing that they did because of public attention and later regressed, because it can be very demoralizing. Disabled people, when they pick up the CLAT paper and see that it has not been designed with their accessibility and needs in mind, will not look at law as a viable career option for themselves. The people making the CLAT paper need to be very conscious about it and have an institutional approach towards it.
Then, in law schools, we need to ensure that there are equal opportunities, disability rights cells and that law students are put in contact with mentors who are legal professionals with disabilities who can hand-hold them through the challenges that they face. Otherwise, if you put a disabled student through training for Manupatra or SCC, they end up not really knowing how they can use these platforms, how they can pursue internships or participate in moot court competitions. What they need is specific information that will give them the know-how that is needed by them to flourish.
Then we need to have law firms and lawyers who are sensitized towards the needs of the disabled and they generally accept their obligations under the law in the Bar and in academia. So, I think different actors in the legal profession need to contribute in this regard.