The Courts and the Constitution – 2023 in Review, Panel 6: Shamnad Basheer Roundtable – Disability and Law



This report summarizes the Shamnad Basheer Memorial Roundtable-Disability and Law. The discussion was a joint effort by Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (“IDIA”) and the Courts and Constitution Conference. IDIA, runs with the help of its volunteers and has assisted over 200 scholars to succeed in entrance exams and guided them in pursuing their legal education through scholarships. This panel aims to blend the experience of IDIA scholars with the academic perspectives on increasing accessibility in the legal sector. The panel was ideated and moderated by Prof. Amita Dhanda. The panel expressed their views regarding the functioning of IDIA and reflected on its effect on the lives of its scholars. Mr. Yugal Jain shared his lived experience of visual impairment, emphasizing the need to distinguish between sympathy and empathy, and pity and compassion. Mr. Yash Dodani discussed the hurdles he faced in the legal profession due to his disability so far, and called for greater inclusivity in these spaces. Anoop Kumar highlighted the need for accountability from institutions about their efforts towards accessibility and expanding the work of IDIA beyond the legal field. Lastly, Prof. Shilpa Anand talked about the need to expand our understanding of disability to include non-medical perspectives, covering all experiences when we imagine reasonable accommodation and introduce other initiatives akin to IDIA that work in the field.  

Moderator: Amita Dhanda (Professor Emeritus, NALSAR University of Law) 

The panel discussion began with Professor Dhanda’s remarks on the motive behind the panel, stating that it aims to be a public reflection on the progress of IDIA, including the progress it has made and the gaps that still need to be filled. She paid homage to Shamnad Basheer and his commitment to diversifying institutional spaces. While acknowledging the need to critically focus on the actions of the state, she also emphasized the need to reflect on the actions of people. 

Speaker 1: Mr Yugal Jain, Senior Associate at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas

Mr. Jain reflected on the IDIA programme, both from a policy perspective of what IDIA ought to do and in his personal capacity as a scholar. He divided his remarks into two parts, beginning with the general narrative around disability and secondly, his lived experience with disability. 

He began by describing his journey towards accepting his visual impairment, and how he was viewed differently as a student and as an individual when he was considered to be a disabled person. This meant he was subject to more pity and sympathy from individuals, such as being appreciated and lauded for doing something as simple as studying in a classroom premised on the idea that even such an act is an achievement for a disabled person.  He noted how he powered through various phases of life and treated his visual impairment as a hurdle.

When working with IDIA, he was critical of the organization, often opposing strategies and policies. But over time, Mr. Jain recognized the important role IDIA and Prof. Basheer played through their compassion and empathy. Here, he drew an important distinction between compassion and pity. He talked about Mr. Shamnad’s empathy in all he does, by giving the space and security needed for people. While noting that individuals often feared offending or patronizing a disabled person, he highlighted the stark difference between pity and compassion, and sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is, in a way, talking down to a person and attributing a lesser footing to them. Empathy and compassion on the other hand do not treat someone as lesser. 

In this regard, he appreciated IDIA, which apart from its benefits to students directly, also promotes sensitisation and enables students to form meaningful connections and networks with others. He concluded by noting how IDIA helped him secure not merely some tangible benefits, but also to make the world a more inclusive place.  

Speaker 2: Mr. Yash Dodani, Final year student at NALSAR

Mr. Dodani began by expanding on the ways in which persons with disabilities can be disadvantaged in law schools, and while appreciating IDIA’s work in enabling access to law schools for underprivileged students, the various hurdles faced beyond that also need to be addressed. 

He first recounted his experience of his initial years at law school and the numerous difficulties he faced like operating a laptop, inaccessible reading modules for someone who was visually challenged, and delayed help causing difficulties in his preparations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic helped bridge this gap and learn to use technology to cross such hurdles. However, this did not mean that no one faced such problems. To ensure that the lack of technology does not hinder access to a meaningful education, IDIA mooted the idea of an Accessibility Lab, established in 2022, which provided OCR and braille modules. 

Outside the classroom, he further explained the struggles he faced with respect to internships and recruitments, where even Tier-I firms expected to be inclusive and sensitive, were disrespectful and disappointing experiences for him. For instance, when speaking to the HR of a law firm about insensitive behavior at the firm, he was in turn questioned for not having revealed his disability prior when applying (when in fact, he had disclosed all such matters). His recruitment experience was similar. While his caliber was recognized, he was rejected by firms who gave no justifications for the same. An average application for a job requires problem-solving and leadership qualities. Mr Dodani argued that persons with disabilities, due to the inaccessibility they face regularly, are naturally better equipped for such qualities, and yet are rejected from such offices. 

Prof. Dhanda in response to the speaker mentioned Sukhadeo Thorat’s study on Dalits, and the contrast observed when an application disclosed their fact of being Dalit and when they only spoke of their ability and experience. The result was that when their identity was not disclosed, they were invited for interviews, but they were excluded when the only change on their resume was their Dalit identity. She compared this to Mr Dodani’s experience, calling out the ableist prejudice that is evident.

Mr. Dodani noted that the reason for such ableism is that persons with disabilities are seen as threats for hiring since there is a consequent increase in cost from hiring someone who requires reasonable accommodation. Additionally, there is a litigation cost in case of any mishap, which could cause both monetary and reputational harm. Lastly, there is a further issue of sensitizing senior managers or partners. 

While elaborating on the evolution of Indian disability law, he cited the case of Surendra Mohan v. State of Tamil Nadu which ruled that persons with disabilities such as visual and hearing impairments are unfit for judgeship and associated duties. The case of Vikas Kumar v. UPSC overruled this judgment and stated that assisted technologies are available, a view that was endorsed by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah. 

The Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons uses the word “normal” in its definition of a disabled person. Mr. Dodani posed the question of why normalization is required when people with disabilities are diverse people with many differences. He concluded by asking people, not to normalize, but to celebrate what we have. 

Speaker 3: Mr. Anoop Kumar

Mr. Anoop Kumar spoke about IDIA’s work and Mr. Shamnad Basheer, and called for IDIA’s notion of inclusivity to expand beyond the legal sector and permeate other sectors of society. 

According to the 2011 census, 2.2 percent or roughly three crore people are disabled. This only represents 7 kinds of disabilities. This number is thus expected to only rise with the number of identified disabilities now reaching 21. Noting how people with disabilities are a sizeable number, he questioned what role the courts and executives have played in accommodating persons with disabilities. 

He noted the case, Rajive Raturi v. UOI, where the court prescribed guidelines to be met by institutions for inclusivity. In pursuance, the UGC asks for compliance reports from educational institutions. After the deadline for submitting such reports, Mr Kumar, through an RTI, had asked for the number of NLUs which had filed them. He found that only CNLU had done so. While acknowledging that this might not imply that reasonable accommodations had not been made for persons with disability, he examined how accountability could be ensured through these reports or, alternatively, through accessibility audits. Therefore, the unwillingness to submit them constituted a serious lapse. 

He also analyzed the limitations on the implementation of laws, which he believes is not the sole responsibility of any one institution but of everyone, including individuals taking responsibility for their actions. The differences of the various kinds of disabilities among disabled people lead to experiences being distinct in all of them. On the question of what reasonable accommodation implied, he argued that it was not limited to equipping persons with disabilities with tools, technologies and infrastructure to function, but it is also constant support that would require expenditure on the companies’ part, something they must be pushed to do so. However, he also said that he faced scepticism about his ability to work, etc. and had an experience much like Mr. Dodani’s, and further cited an Economic Times report which also examined a similar disparity in employment. The speaker doesn’t endorse litigation to achieve this, because that would lead to mere maintenance of optics but no groundwork. He concluded by noting that he has received an inclusive education owing to the National Association for the Blind and IDIA, and the role played by Mr. Basheer encouraging him to speak his mind. 

 Speaker 4: Prof. Shilpa Anand

Prof. Shilpa Anand began by stating that she comes from the discipline of disability studies, observing that over the course of her studies, she has realized that the person with disability is the expert and not the medical practitioner, or anyone else. Therefore, any initiative must centre around their experiences. Responding to Mr. Dodani, the speaker said that even if impairments are similar, disability experiences depend on the socio-economic background and other factors of identity such as gender and caste. This is called the ‘social model’ in disability studies.

However, the medical determination of disability, called the “medical model”, is predominant, and causes several issues. One such issue is that of ‘benchmark disabilities’ that was highlighted in the Vikas Kumar judgment. It was argued that it is erroneous to compute disability only in terms of ability that can be determined medically. The judgment was in favour of the determination of disability with respect to the encounters students face at various levels that are not just medical and limited the scope of determining disability through a benchmark. 

She built on the addresses of other speakers, noting how the barriers are not just with respect to physical or sensory infrastructure but also include emotional and social aspects. However, such non-physical issues are often ignored by educational institutions when understanding reasonable accommodation. While there are conversations around mental health across institutions, it is often more convenient for such conversations to centre around individual experiences, than acknowledge oppressive structures which also cause distress. 

The concern is that certain disability experiences can get over-medicalised while some can still be within the social model i.e. attributed to individual experiences. Stigma and other such barriers are what inhibit progress on a larger level. 

The speaker also noted that non-academic ableist structures also operate on each of us. This includes how classrooms can operate in an ableist manner. For example, a person with severe anxiety may feel terrified to make a presentation in front of an audience. The challenge would be to determine what is the structural barrier that can be identified and then dealt with.  While the usual method is to push disabled people into mainstream means of engaging with academic disciplines, this needs to be reorganized. For instance, Satendra Singh of the University College of Medical Sciences in Delhi has introduced medical humanities as part of its course on medical education to draw attention to the sociology of illness or the critical rethinking of doctor-patient relations, etc. IIT Madras also has started an initiative led by a team of doctors to organically evolve toolboxes to enable different disciplines to adapt to disabilities. The Centre for Inclusion is trying to collate video resources for teachers to teach specific disciplines to people with particular kinds of impairment effects. She observes that all of these initiatives like IDIA evolve organically, and working on such accessibility initiatives pushes us to re-think about what merit is.   

Written by: Devika Veerkar

Edited by: Saranya Ravindran

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