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IDIA Law Blog: Increasing Access by Increasing Diversity

Empowering underprivileged students through legal education.

An estimated 16-minute read
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Photo by Gulshan Sachdeva, via here.

We began this interview series with the principal objective of curating insights from lawyers with disabilities who can serve as ‘waypavers’ and ‘pathmarkers’ for law students and young lawyers with disabilities, in India and beyond. It would be no exaggeration to state that few people fit that description better than our next interviewee, Senior Advocate Santosh Kumar Rungta.

Blind since birth, SK Rungta has surmounted challenges most would consider insurmountable and has successfully defied, and continues to defy, what most would consider incredibly difficult odds.

Senior Advocate Rungta’s accomplishments would be noteworthy even if he was merely a practicing lawyer – he was conferred with the prestigious senior advocate title by the Delhi High Court in 2011 – but what sets him apart is the fact that he has generously devoted his skills and energy to breaking down many barriers that have prevented the disabled from realizing their full potential.

From facilitating the entry of the blind into the civil services to successfully urging the Supreme Court to give full effect to the reservation for the disabled provided by the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act; from defending the right of the blind to serve as witnesses to the making of a will to playing an instrumental role in the formulation of India’s new disability law – SK Rungta’s efforts have gone a long way in enabling persons with disabilities across India to lead a life of dignity and respect.

This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj. The interview has been edited for clarity, and condensed from the longer version first published on the IDIA blog.

1. Firstly, can you provide our readers with a brief background of your schooling and educational qualifications? In addition, given that accessible technology was not readily available during your days in school and college, was braille your principal means of acquiring information?

I did my schooling from a special school for the blind – Model School for Blind Children, Dehradun. Since it was a special school, there were few opportunities to access mainstream educational programmes.

However, some opportunities were available, such as going to the Welham School for competitions such as debates, poem recitation, etc. After completing my matriculation, I went back to my native place, Kanpur, and studied at BNSD College for my graduation.

I studied law at Dayanand College of Law, University of Kanpur. Since I had studied in a special school, it was difficult to adjust to classroom learning, but I was able to cope up through the help of readers and by making short braille notes.

It was just not possible to braille entire books, given that braille production was an issue and braille material requires a lot of space. Technology was also not available then.

And then when I started studying law, ,,the challenge became doubly difficult because, as you can appreciate, there is no end to the amount of reading that one is required to do if you want to succeed. But I consistently adopted the selfsame strategy described above,,.

Access to library material was also a major challenge, because the catalogue itself was often not available in an accessible format. At least 30% of the time, if not more, was wasted only in figuring out what I wanted to read by obtaining the catalogue. That said, I had a lot of sighted friends, in addition to readers, who helped me cope with these challenges.

Then I came to Delhi and took the reins of the National Federation for the Blind at the age of 24. I took admission in the LL.M. course at Delhi University.

The primary object behind doing so was to get a place to stay in Delhi (laughs).

While I did eventually do justice to that course, as I did not want my academic career to be ruined, the main object was getting accommodation. Even in Delhi University, I faced these same challenges.

2. In light of various technological advancements today, do you believe that braille still holds relevance in the functioning of a visually challenged lawyer?

Let me make it very clear that I do not think any technology can act as a substitute for braille.

Just as a sighted lawyer wants his/her reading material to be under his/her fingers, a blind lawyer also needs the material to be under his fingertips.

When I am arguing a case, I read all the material beforehand. Even though I rely mostly on my memory, if I do not have access to my braille notes in the file, my performance is 10% lower than what it would be if I had access to braille notes.

Insofar as the relationship between adaptive technology and braille is concerned, I don’t see this as being a case of either/or. Adaptive technology is essentially designed to help you perform your functions effectively.

For me, the refreshable braille display is the technology that helps me access content in an accessible format (for me, that format is braille). I use that on a regular basis now.

For a blind lawyer, adaptive technology is essentially either in the form of braille output or audio output. There is no other output. If you use audio, even in e-courts that are coming up now, can you concentrate on the argument? You cannot.

Whereas with the braille display, I can do both. With braille, you can listen to the judge’s query and immediately answer it. You can press a simple find command and obtain what you are looking for.

3. What potential, in your view, does the advent of the e-courts platform and digitization of judicial processes hold for making the legal profession more accessible to lawyers with disabilities? Do you think accessibility is being given the importance that it warrants in these initiatives?

To answer the first part of your question, ,,digitization of judicial processes and procedures holds great potential for disabled lawyers and will nearly bring us on par with our non-disabled counterparts,,. The main apprehension that the society has against disabled lawyers stems from their inability to read.

Once court processes are completely digitized, that limitation is gone and we will be on par with our able-bodied counterparts. The only difference will be that able-bodied lawyers will use laptops and their disabled counterparts will use braille displays or screen reading technology, so there will be real equality.

To answer the second part, we have a long way to go in achieving complete accessibility in the digitization initiatives. The new Act has several progressive provisions on this. The Government initially understood accessibility as only extending to physical spaces, such as ramps etc. Information and communication technology was not the subject matter of debate. We succeeded in getting it included within the concept of accessibility under the Act.

4. The designation of senior counsel is the hallmark of a lawyer’s superior ability and standing at the bar. You were conferred the prestigious senior counsel designation by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in 2011. Can you briefly tell us the method of functioning adopted by you to excel at the bar and compete on an equal footing with your sighted counterparts?

As I said, initially I tried to do the best I could in the cases I got. Fortunately, the results were also positive. That helped me establish myself.

For preparation, I largely depended on assistance of readers and braille notes. I use those braille notes even now.

What has changed now, however, is that with the advent of technology, instead of making extensive notes in hard copy braille, I can save them on a pen drive and prepare with the help of a braille display. That has significantly reduced my dependence on readers.

5. Can you describe the most challenging issues you faced while practicing law and what you did to overcome the same?

My greatest challenge has been this: ,,there was an initial hitch in the minds of judges (about my competence). Some judges were very biased initially. I had the experience of arguing before a judge who, even before I would stand up to argue, would say ‘dismissed’,,.

I would attribute that only to his biased mind. This happened thrice in a row with the same judge.

So I think my presumption that it had something to do with his perception of my blindness is correct. That said, ,,such judges were only 2 or 3; by and large the judiciary has been very positive,,.

6. In India, fresh law graduates join the offices of seniors to gain experience and exposure. Can you briefly describe your experiences of working under a senior lawyer in your initial days? As you would know, many seniors are reluctant to hire a blind lawyer on the pretext that the courts are inaccessible to them. Is there any advice you would like to share with such persons to counter their opinion?

I would start by saying that it’s not advisable for a lawyer with a disability to start his career under a senior.

I, in fact, did not start my career under any senior but started on my own.

That gave me the opportunity to know all procedures, develop all the requisite skills, meet all challenges, draft the written submissions myself, etc. I used to accompany the clerk for everything right from filing to listing.

If you start your practice with a senior, because of his perception of your limitations, he would not give you the opportunity to go, file and see the listings yourself etc.

,,My firm perception is that the right course for any disabled lawyer is not to join a senior at the beginning of his/her career,,. I acknowledge why people choose that path, if you start practicing on your own, the challenges of getting your first case and other related issues are doubtless there.

Even if you do get a place with a senior, $$at some point or the other, you will have to start your own practice$$. When you go back, you will not get ample opportunity to develop your own skills. You will have to start from scratch – I have seen people doing that. You will have to develop confidence and translate that to your client base.

You will face discrimination even in remuneration (in a senior’s chamber) – you won’t get what others get. In a majority of cases it would be on charity mode, not on an equal basis.

7. Don’t you think that, if you work with a senior, you at least have a foundation that you can build on? You have worked under the tutelage of someone who can help you build your career. Should you forgo that chance?

Let me tell you that ,,no senior will give you space to build your own career, whether you are sighted or blind,,. There are many lawyers who started their careers with seniors or law firms and ended their careers that way. It is very difficult to put yourself, when you are older, through a world of challenges.

If you work for a senior, the advantage I see is that you at least have some assured income. If you are aspiring for a bright future, you may not be able to build your career from there. This is my opinion but maybe others will differ. I made that conscious decision from the beginning of my career.

To the seniors who are good enough to accept lawyers with disabilities, I would only say this: For most of us, as a lawyer, the fact that you are the protector of rights is the foundational reason for you entering this profession.

$$If a lawyer with a disability comes to a senior, his case must be considered objectively, irrespective of his disability. That positive approach must be shown by seniors$$.

8. If you have argued property matters in which you have to look at charts and maps to see who has possession over what piece of property, how were you able to make that accessible to you?

Very interesting question!

First, I try to understand the location or point that one has to show on the map.

I try to understand it in a descriptive manner. I make a mental map. I take my office table as the landscape of the property. I ask my juniors to put marks at relevant places on the landscape. I now descriptively find out what point refers to what on the map. I know point a. I know what it is.

I will tell the judge, see at point a, this is what emerges.

Supposing at point a there is a wall, I write a narration: ‘Wall on north side. This joins plot no. x with plot no. y. This wall blocks the way to plot no y.’ If the issue is of right of way and I am saying that there is no right of way to x plot, I have to show it in the site plan.

So, now I have a clear picture and a clear narration of the points marked on the site plan. I understand what I’m trying to show and what the opposite party is trying to show. Basically, I prepare a descriptive note of the site plan in braille and that has always helped.

So far ,,there has been no occasion when my disability has been a stumbling block in disputing the other side’s claim,,. As I describe it, my junior simultaneously shows the description on the map to the judge.

Co-ordination is very important and I practice that beforehand. If there is a property that is square in dimension, I will understand what is on left side; what is on right; what is frontage; what is back side.

In summary, it is a 3-step process: First, I ascertain where the property is. Second, I ascertain where everything of relevance in the landscape is. Third, I understand where the disputed points are.

9. While lawyers like yourself and activists are fighting to ensure equal rights for the disabled, persons with disabilities are still not given work commensurate with their skills. In your opinion, how can this problem be dealt with?

I have always been advising them to bring those cases to me. We will have to deal with them through judicial activism. For instance, there is an ordinance factory in Ambarnagar in Maharashtra. One blind person was selected for a clerical post in that factory. He was initially not given appointment even after selection. We were able to get that through judicial intervention. Thereafter they refused to give work. We approached CAT and HC.

Their argument was that we will not give you JAWS [Job Access With Speech, the world’s most popular screen reader for computer users with visual impairments].

If you want JAWS, you will have to bring it with your own funds. We got it arranged and got a favourable direction, but this was not given. This again led to a third round of litigation. He was given some work of clerical nature and he had to take it.

I have heard government establishments asking their disabled employees to come and take their salary on the first day of every month. They asked their employees to do so, given that they assume that they are only concerned with getting salary. I fought against that and now it has luckily been changed.

Now they are not given work proportionate to their skills or job profile. That is an issue which needs urgent intervention, In order to sustain the momentum of opening doors for public employment. That will have a demonstrative effect on the private sector as well.

We can show them that this is what an employee is doing in the public sector and ask them: why can’t he do that in your sector? There are many ways of attacking the attitudinal barriers that we are facing. In that respect also, NGOs will have to play an important role.

10. You have been at the forefront of the fight for equality and non-discrimination, insofar as the disabled are concerned, in courts across India. Given that a lot of judicial verdicts are not enforced by the executive, the 2013 NFB judgment being a case in point, to what extent does judicializing these issues yield meaningful results, and do you think that there is a need to think seriously about other efficacious solutions, such as policy interventions or the adoption of a non-confrontational approach?

When the NFB judgment was not being implemented, we filed contempt petitions. In contempt proceedings, the government conceded.

Special recruitment drive was undertaken. 12000 odd seats have been filled up; 6000 odd still remain to be filled up. In our country, there is always an election underway. You have the code of conduct because of which appointments cannot be made and that should be factored in while trying to analyse the progress made.

However, one cannot be satisfied with the kind of progress that has been made. Policy intervention is something that we have always been trying to attempt, but there is resistance in administration. In the government, there is always resistance from the DoPT. Our department has been very positive, but they cannot operate in a hostile fashion with the DoPT. The DoPT is the stumbling block. Even on the business allocation issue, DoPT takes advantage of the fact that this has nowhere been clearly mentioned.

No one listens to department for empowerment of the disabled. Getting the government to agree to policy shift is very difficult. Judicial precedents are very positive. The question, however, is this: how many organizations in the disability sector have joined in these advocacy efforts? Very few.

Same is the case with regard to policy intervention. Most of them are interested only to act as service providers such as in areas of education and rehabilitation. Advocacy is secondary for them.

That is stultifying our progress in implementation. I am not boasting, but if you look at positive legal developments in this sector, most of it is from my organization, Be it scheme of reservation in previous act, civil service posts and examinations, higher education reservation, etc. But all alone, 1, 2 or 5 organizations cannot be so forceful so as to create a positive policy environment.

On the adoption of a non-confrontational approach: I am not very comfortable with this terminology.

You see, if you have a hostile policy and attitudinal environment, what do you do? You can stay satisfied with whatever is there. You don’t ask for changes. But if you ask for changes, it is seen as a confrontational approach. ,,I don’t see it that way. It is advocacy. If it is perceived as confrontation, so be it.,,

The IDIA Disability Access Programme (IDAP) has launched a first of its kind initiative of interviewing disabled lawyers in all spheres of the legal profession (teaching, advocacy, litigation, corporate, etc.). The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities.

To know more about the work we do, please visit www.idialaw.com or please write to

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