Recently, a friend, who happens to be blind just like me, reached out to me to ask for advice about the barriers that they were facing at their workplace because of their disability. They spoke about not getting meaningful work, about their employer not knowing the meaning of reasonable accommodation and the frustration they felt because the pace of their work was slower than that of their sighted counterparts.
In addition to addressing their specific questions, this is what I said: “It is only by laying claim to spaces from which we have thus far been excluded, with our assertiveness and competence, that we can make things better.”
Even in 2021, the disabled continue to face a series of structural obstacles that hinder the realisation of their full potential. A combination of unfounded biases, lowered societal expectations, internalised inferiority and, perhaps most importantly, a series of structural barriers conspire to ensure that the odds are heavily stacked against them.
Ideally, the fact of a disabled person achieving personal, academic or professional success should not be noteworthy. However, because of these structural realities, I believe that the story of any disabled person breaking down barriers and shattering glass ceilings must be told. It generates awareness, helps other disabled people aspire for more and can be a meaningful step in normalising the discourse around the needs and aspirations of the disabled.
Aiming for the courts
A few years after I started studying law, I knew that I wanted to litigate in the courts. At its best, litigation is a battle of wits, an opportunity to resolve the conflicts that could drive us apart in a manner that is acceptable to the relevant actors.
After I completed my masters education at the University of Oxford in the summer of 2020, it was commonly assumed that I was firmly on the path to becoming an academic. That I would pursue a doctorate and then begin to teach. However, I always viewed my masters education as the opportunity to sharpen my skills in the law, enhance my capacity to conduct rigorous research and, above all, deepen my thought process and worldview. In other words, to acquire skills and experiences that could be applied in a practically focused manner, in litigation and legal policy work.
It was for this reason that I concluded that, on my return to India in July 2020, a judicial clerkship would serve as a great launching point for me, in the pursuit of these aspirations.
That’s why I decided to apply to work for Justice Dhananjaya Chandrachud. An avid follower of the Supreme Court, I had followed Justice Chandrachud’s rise in India’s top court closely. Never afraid to speak his mind and unwilling to accept any injustice that he could remedy, he had acquired a well-earned reputation for being fearless, someone who was willing to walk the talk and stand up for the underdog.
Before I started working for him, I had never heard him say much on disability rights issues. However, his track record on LGBTQ and gender justice issues, in particular, made me reasonably confident that if there was one person in the Indian judicial system who could both offer me the additional support I needed to thrive in my work as well as help me make things better for disabled legal professionals like me, it was him.
My first meeting with Justice Chandrachud made me confident that my hopes of finding in him an enlightened ally for addressing my accessibility needs were not misplaced. When I brought up the issue of the reasonable accommodations I would need on the job, one thing that he said stood out to me: “You should have the full suite of files to choose from, when deciding which matters you would like to work on, like your fellow clerks.”
It was a simple observation, one that would not be remarkable were it not for the fact that most people in his position would be amazed by the mere fact that a disabled person could do any high-quality legal work at all. His emphasis on ensuring that I had the same degree of choice as my sighted counterparts to determine what cases I would like to work and conduct research on was a pleasant surprise.
A demanding job
As I am blind, I can only access documents that are in soft copy form and accessible with my screen reader. A screen reader is an application used by the visually challenged that speaks out the content that is given on the computer screen in a synthetic voice.
In 2017, in my final year of law school, I had interned for a month at the Supreme Court, for Justice UU Lalit. Thanks to Justice Lalit’s personal interventions, I was able to access the “paperbooks” – as lawyers call the collection of all papers in a case – from which I had to make briefs in soft copy form. But, based on the challenges that I had faced during that internship, I knew that being able to access all the files that I would have to work on during my clerkship was not going to be easy.
As a friend quipped to me when I told her about securing the clerkship: “Isn’t this at the same court who said that blind people could not qualify to be judges?” She was referring to the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment in V Surendra Mohan vs State of Tamil Nadu, in which the court had affirmed the view that a candidate whose visual or hearing impairment was in excess of 40%-50% could not discharge the responsibilities of a civil judge.
The work of a judicial law clerk is demanding. It entails preparing memoranda summarising the case files slated to come for the consideration of the judge, conducting research for judgments and helping the judge in the discharge of their extra-judicial assignments.
Because of the pandemic, and Justice Chandrachud’s familiarity with technology, all paper books in his court were made available in soft copy form when I joined. However, it didn’t take me long to realise that just because the files were available in digital form did not automatically mean that they would be accessible to me. Some files were very poorly scanned, which meant that I could not discern their content.
Even though lawyers can simply convert their filings typically generated using MS Word into PDF form, which would make the end product fully accessible to me, they choose to print and scan their filings, with no regard for accessibility. As a friend put it more provocatively, “They go out of their way to make their filings less accessible.”
While the Supreme Court recommends that all filings be OCR-enabled, this is often not complied with. OCR or Optical Character Recognition is a technology that converts documents and images into editable and searchable data.
As it turns out, lawyers still file some documents as image-based PDFs which cannot be read by a screen reader. Further, some critical pieces of information are often written by hand, which also cannot be read by a screen reader.
When my clerkship began, the Supreme Court website would require every visitor to enter a visual “captcha” to access most facets of the website, such as cause-lists, judgments and daily orders. Accessible captchas for the disabled – in audio or text form – were not provided.
I knew that the barriers to access that I would have to confront were enormous. For it is in no small part because of these barriers that hardly any friends that I have in the law who are blind have chosen to pursue a career in litigation.
I knew that one judicial clerkship was not going to be enough time to break down all these barriers. Equally, however, this was a rare and special opportunity to effectuate meaningful changes – small and large – that could make a huge difference or at least make things somewhat better.
Thanks to Justice Chandrachud’s personal intervention, the Supreme Court added a text and audio captcha throughout its website. For me, this was no less than the court opening its previously closed gates to me. At my behest, Justice Chandrachud added an instruction in all his cause-list for lawyers, to address the barrier of poorly scanned PDFs.
The instruction, in material part, reads as follows:
“NOTE Whenever written submissions are directed to be filed by the Court in any proceeding, advocates and parties in person are requested to email a soft copy in a pdf form on or before the stipulated date to the following email id ... The soft copies which are emailed should not be scanned copies of printed submissions.”
For a visually challenged professional, perhaps few frustrations parallel the frustration of the time wasted in troubleshooting accessibility challenges at work. Because of the accessibility barriers that I had to confront while reading files, and because being blind means that you cannot skim read, it would take me longer than my able-bodied counterparts to prepare the memoranda of files assigned to me.
Since this was beyond my control, I requested Justice Chandrachud, as a reasonable accommodation, to read my memoranda a little later than those of my sighted counterparts. He unhesitatingly agreed to do this.
Equally important, he often utilised my clerkship as an opportunity to highlight the accessibility needs of those in my position in his court and in other public engagements. The public comments of a Supreme Court judge – especially one as well known as him – carry great weight in the public mind. And so these statements were always a meaningful contribution in fostering dialogue on reasonable accommodation for the disabled, in the legal profession and beyond.
Significantly, it was during my clerkship that a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Chandrachud, reversed the judgment in V Surendra Mohan that my friend had quipped to me about.
Holding that the judgment in Mohan was not good law because it did not take into account the principle of reasonable accommodation, Justice Chandrachud held that a reasonable accommodation analysis would have required: “a consideration of the specific accommodations needed, the cost of providing them, reference to the efficacy with which other judges with more than 40%-50% visual/hearing impairment in India and abroad can discharge judicial duties after being provided the necessary accommodations, amongst other factors.”
He held that persons with disabilities had been the victims of this lapse by the Supreme Court.
Since a lot of the accessibility barriers that disabled legal professionals face are structural in nature, they require systemic solutions. It is for this reason that the E-Committee of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Chandrachud, made the task of making the digital infrastructure of the Indian judicial system more accessible to persons with disabilities a core component of its work.
We identified the specific barriers that existed on each High Court website and worked towards addressing them, in coordination with the relevant High Court. Many High Courts had inaccessible captchas, much like the Supreme Court. Now all have audio/text captchas.
Since a lot of the barriers I have outlined earlier are a function of PDFs being prepared without keeping the need for accessibility in mind, the E-Committee conducted a series of sessions to equip High Courts to upload all their PDFs in accessible form.
Finally, Justice Chandrachud constituted a working group on accessibility consisting of experts on assistive technology, to advise the E-Committee on the steps that it can take to ensure that the project on the digitisation of judicial records is disabled-friendly.
The clerkship also brought home for me the importance of why the meaningful representation of those hitherto excluded from positions of relative influence matters.
In an article in the New York Times in 2013 headlined “Exhibit A for a Major Shift: Justices’ Gay Clerks”, Adam Liptak chronicles the difference that having gay law clerks has made to the worldview of American Supreme Court Justices. He argues that one of the factors driving the American Supreme Court’s embrace of gay rights in recent years has been the increasing visibility of openly gay law clerks working for justices on that court.
It would be presumptuous of me to think that the reforms for the empowerment of the disabled that I have outlined were occasioned by me working for the court for a year. But I do know this from my first-hand experience – putting a face to a cause can make a significant difference in making what may seem like abstract issues very concrete.
I know that there continue to exist myriad barriers that hold many disabled people back in this profession. But I also know that the work that we have done, and the foundations that we have built, will make things better for other disabled people aspiring to work in the courts or to join the bar. And that is no small thing.
As for me, I will continue to enter spaces that aren’t for me and try to make them better, by my mere presence and by taking proactive measures. When I was about to leave Oxford, my supervisor, Dev Gangjee, said to me, “You should definitely go and pursue your aspiration of litigating in the Indian courts. If the obstacles on your path prove to be too formidable, you can always come back here, into the world of academia.”
For now, at least, I am not going anywhere.
Rahul Bajaj is a Rhodes Scholar with two masters degrees in law from the University of Oxford.