Despite advances in assistive technology and improvements in public attitudes about the capabilities of the disabled, many disabled professionals continue to face a whole host of attitudinal and infrastructural barriers. The legal profession, despite being at its core committed to promoting the values of fairness and equity, is not impervious to this trend. To illustrate, a diversity survey in 2018 found that only 6.21% students in national law schools across India identified as being disabled. It is to set in motion a well-considered thought process for how these structural realities can be confronted that a virtual summit on legal professionals with disabilities was conducted on 1-3 December, 2020. The Summit was organized by the ILS Law College, Pune, in collaboration with the OHRH, the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds.
The first day saw a panel discussion featuring legal academics with disabilities, including such distinguished names as Prof. Michael Ashley Stein of Harvard Law School, Prof. Peter Blanck of Burton Blatt Institute and Prof. Anna Lawson of University of Leeds. The discussion was moderated by Prof. Sandra Fredman. The panelists shared personal reflections on the challenges that they faced, by dint of their disability, in thriving as legal academics. They uniformly noted that much progress has been made since they started their careers. Professor Stein who is on a wheelchair, for instance, noted how, when he began his career, discrimination against the disabled was rampant. Now, though, when his students hear him recount these experiences, they are often stunned.
The second day witnessed a panel discussion featuring 4 lawyers with disabilities from 4 different countries: Senior Advocate SK Rungta [India], Ms. Laura Wolk [US], Mr. David Lepofski [Canada] and Ms. Carol Tailor [Australia]. Ms. Wolk, the first female blind person to clerk on the US Supreme Court, spoke about her efforts to create, in the US Supreme Court, the institutional knowledge to accommodate a lawyer with a disability, to modify practices that were inaccessible to her and the importance of asserting your needs, in a guilt-free fashion. Ms. Tailor, who has an orthopedic disability, spoke movingly how the burden of proof is always on a disabled lawyer to prove her competence. Mr. Rungta spoke about the fashion in which he developed processes and systems to thrive as a litigator despite his blindness. A high point of the conversation was Mr. Lepofski sharing a thought that he had voiced in the Canadian Parliament 4 decades ago. “It is an aphorism,” Mr. Lepofski had said then, “that justice is blind. Let us ensure that justice truly has the experience of blindness and that the blind are truly able to experience justice.”
The third day witnessed two sessions. The first session, titled ‘judges with disabilities’ was aimed at identifying the ways in which we can effectively confront the barriers that prevent the disabled from becoming judges. Judges with and without disabilities shared their thoughts on this important topic. The former included Justice Richard Bernstein – a judge on the Michigan Supreme Court who is blind and spoke about the concrete accommodations that he has adopted to offset the impact of his disability in his everyday work. Judge Ronald Gould, who serves on the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and has multiple sclerosis, underscored the importance of the disabled focusing on what they can do, as opposed to what they cannot. The latter included two distinguished former Indian Supreme Court judges, Justice Madan Lokur and Justice A.K. Sikri. They particularly highlighted that the Indian Supreme Court’s judgment last year, holding that an individual whose degree of blindness exceeds 40-50% is not fit to become a judge, was a huge letdown and inconsistent with the constitutionally outlined value system.
The valedictory session saw two impactful contributions. The first was by Mr. Danlami Basharu [Chair, UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] who reflected on the ways in which the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities can be made real in India and translated from principle to practice. The final address of the summit was delivered by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, judge, Supreme Court of India. In his stirring speech, Justice Chandrachud offered a thoroughgoing account of all the barriers that disabled individuals face, from clearing the exams that serve as entry points to get into Indian law schools, to occupying positions of power in the system of administering justice. The theme of his talk was ‘While exclusion against the disabled may or may not be intentional, inclusion must always be so’. He offered his best thinking on how each of the challenges outlined can be effectively counteracted.
In this session, Justice Chandrachud also launched a book titled ‘It Can Be Done: IDAP Interview Series’. The book contains the interviews of 21 legal professionals with disabilities, from 6 countries, spanning 3 continents. It can be purchased here. If you would like a copy and do not use the Kindle, please email Rahul Bajaj on email@example.com. The Summit has already begun serving as a change agent, with the authority conducting the Common Law Admission Test in India agreeing to consider offering alternative, accessible questions for visually challenged students next year.
By Rahul Bajaj
All the videos from the Summit have now been uploaded. The full playlist can be found here.