It Can be Done: A Book on Making the Legal Ecosystem More Accessible to the Disabled: Read Excerpts.

Rahul Bajaj

28 Dec 2020 4:45 AM GMT

  • It Can be Done: A Book on Making the Legal Ecosystem More Accessible to the Disabled: Read Excerpts.

    "For many of us, what drew us to the law as our chosen career path was its ability to remedy injustice, to help make our society more equal. And yet, despite professing these high ideals, we must always ask: How far does our profession in fact actually practice them?While a number of barriers that lawyers with disabilities face can only be addressed through large-scale interventions, many...

    "For many of us, what drew us to the law as our chosen career path was its ability to remedy injustice, to help make our society more equal. And yet, despite professing these high ideals, we must always ask: How far does our profession in fact actually practice them?

    While a number of barriers that lawyers with disabilities face can only be addressed through large-scale interventions, many such barriers are attitudinal - stemming from nothing more than a fundamental lack of awareness about what a lawyer with a disability, when provided appropriate tools, can accomplish. It is to address these attitudinal barriers that, in 2016, we launched the IDAP Interview Series, with the singular aim of fostering dialogue, breaking stereotypes and opening new avenues for lawyers with disabilities, in India and beyond. This book is a compilation of those interviews, featuring 21 legal professionals, from 6 countries and 3 continents, whose disabilities run the gamut.
    In the pages that follow, you will read stories featuring a diverse cast of characters, stories that will move you, that will make you question your assumptions and hopefully transform you into allies for the disabled people around you. You will read about the disappointments that young Zak Yacoob faced when no one was willing to hire him because he is blind. You will read blind American DC Circuit Judge David Tatel talk about how he feels when people at airports talk to his wife instead of talking to him directly. You will read about all the hurdles that orthopedically challenged Shweta Bansal had to overcome in obtaining her rightful slot in the Indian Foreign Service.
    You will read the journey of deaf-blind Haben Girma, who introduced President Obama and President Elect Biden at the White House on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You will read blind senior advocate SK Rungta sharing the story of the judge who would repeatedly dismiss Mr. Rungta's cases without even so much as giving him a chance to utter a sentence. You will read hearing impaired Saumya Sharma talk about securing rank 9 in the UPSC civil service exams and fighting to ensure reservation for the hearing impaired in the Delhi judicial services.
    As you applaud the courage and grit shown by these interviewees, instead of jumping to immediate conclusions about how inspiring they are, please pause and reflect. On what is it that made it so hard for them to succeed in the first place. And what each of us can do to reverse this state of affairs. To ensure that such stories become so ubiquitous that we no longer have to celebrate them.
    In this final chapter, we would like to collate the key insights flowing from all our interviews. Our hope is that these actionable insights will be deployed by different actors in the legal profession to make their workplaces more accessible, their attitudes more accommodating and their approach more empathetic. We have tried to organize the workable solutions in this chapter in a format such that the various stakeholders can easily refer to these learnings, imbibe them and try to emulate these practices in their respective spheres.
    Some of these takeaways assume the form of concrete solutions to real problems that we identified during the course of these interviews whereas the others are simply standalone ideas or principles which actors in the legal sphere should try to implement widely and flexibly into their everyday working environment.
    Key insights for law firms:
    • Problem: Richard Chen identified a very important issue in the following terms: "Nowadays, I think even if you are in corporate law, there are definitely challenges because it is very heavily documented, time pressure is very intense, and tolerance for mistakes is very low. I've noticed this and this is despite the fact that people inherently want to be understanding but when it comes down to dollars and cents, at the end of the day, that's what rules."
    We like to call this the difference between the Friday evening view of accessibility versus the Monday morning view of accessibility. Meaning that, when asked in the abstract, law firms are very understanding and empathetic about accommodating the disabled. However, in the cut and thrust of everyday work, because of the belief that disabled lawyers will not be as efficient, they end up not reposing faith in them.
    Potential Solution: By having a frank, open conversation with the disabled lawyer, to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Then, working with them to see what strategies you can develop to help them be just as efficient as their able-bodied counterparts. Attaching forethought to this issue will help you avoid a situation when you have to assign the task to someone else, when the pressure of work becomes intense.
    • Problem: Richard Chen covers another important problem in the following terms: "Firms may have patience but the clients don't. I think that's the reality of it. I think that clients get annoyed, especially when they're paying large fees. I have in the past 6-7 years billed around 500- 650 USD or more an hour, so I guess there isn't a lot of patience when you're getting billed at that rate."
    Potential Solution: this battle needs to be fought on multiple fronts. First, building on the point above, efforts must be made to ensure that disabled lawyers can be just as efficient as their able-bodied counterparts, in real-time situations at work. Second, clients need to be sensitized to the importance of diversity, of not just focusing on quantity but also quality of work. If a disabled lawyer is able to produce high quality work, and they are not able to do it only because the client forces the firm to give it to someone who can do it in fewer hours, the loss will be really the client's. Third, clients and vendors must demand, as a condition of working with law firms, that the latter should not discriminate against disabled employees in any way or form.
    • Problem: David Shannon describes it this way: "It may become more difficult to develop contacts that will help you with the initial networks that get you hired for that first job. I'll give an example. So often, as an intern, or a university student, the way to start beginning those initial professional networks are going to golf tournaments, or going to events with your colleagues who may be prospective employers. As a quadriplegic, I don't golf anymore. I used to before my accident. There might be office parties, but the party is in a place that is up small steps. These little things that often are overlooked start to add up, one by one. They add to very significant barriers when going for their first job interview. It's a job interview, and if the competition is between the individual that the employer knows well through golf tournaments and other social events, or has been running around bringing coffee and doing office or clerical work, versus the individual who has quadriplegia or a disability that the employer does not understand. [For the latter,] they really have not had the opportunity to engage and connect, and have not been able to also see them utilise their skills. There will be a natural propensity to hire the individual that the employers are comfortable with."
    Potential Solution: Law firms should seek out disabled employees to see if they have any problems. They should develop ways of involving them in recreational firm activities fully. They should be thoughtful and intentional about ensuring that the factors set out in the above quote do not come in the way of a disabled employee or intern realizing her full potential.
    Key Insights for the Bar:
    • Problem: A lawyer who is blind would not able to see the demeanor of witnesses or of clients. This will put her at a disadvantage vis-a-vis her able-bodied counterparts.
    Potential Solutions: Veteran Canadian appellate lawyer David Lepofsky offers a complete answer to this question, in the following terms. "To understand the demeanour of the witness, I would listen very very carefully to what they were saying and I found that I could understand a lot from just listening very carefully. And whenever I needed to understand the exact expression of the judge or the witness, I would ask my law students/clerks. In fact, sometimes how a witness looks can be misleading and I had the advantage of listening to them and make my assessment on the way they spoke."
    • Problem: How will a disabled junior be able to appreciate visual features of the evidence in a case?
    Potential Solution: Mr. Rungta offers an excellent workable solution to this problem by giving us an example of how he appreciates the evidence in land disputes. He says: "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." Judge Szumowski similarly says: "Insofar as handling evidence is concerned, it was never much an issue. I could grasp forensic evidence after it was described to me.
    Similarly, for photographs, typically, someone would describe to me what it meant and we would run the description by the Defence Attorney to see if they agreed with that description. In case they did not, I would offer them the option of referring their case to another judge. Otherwise, I would ask them to then make their argument to the jury.
    As a matter of fact, not much turned on whether I was able to grasp what the picture showcased – it only mattered if it was in some way defamatory or prejudicial. Otherwise, after I determined that the picture was admissible, the lawyers would make the arguments before a jury as to what the picture meant."
    Key Insights for the judiciary:
    • Problem: Will hiring a disabled judge create avoidable complications and will they require too much help, making the task almost impossible for them?
    Potential Solution: No, this is an ableist assumption. A full answer to this is furnished by Judge Szumowski as follows: "I would like to ask any judge who is currently serving in India: if you went blind while on the bench, and were able to efficiently discharge your responsibility before this, how would you feel if told that you can no longer continue as a judge, even if you are able to perform your functions with some amount of retraining and ability to use adaptive tech? In that sense, I think there is some room for improvement in your system." For hearing impairments, Saumya Sharma has this to say:
    "My response to the concerns is- technology is evolving rapidly. In addition to mics and speakers, sophisticated technology can be used and suitable changes can be made in the infrastructure of the courtroom in order to assist a judge who is hearing impaired."
    Key Insights for law schools:
    • Nirmita Narsimhan says: "I think starting with the college level or institutions –I feel what we learn there shapes our confidence and grasp of the subject – where it is important to ensure that at least the reading list is available as accessible digital copy. I wouldn't even accept if they say "2 out of the 10 on the reading list are available and that's enough for you", if you're giving the 10 options to other students to pick from, even these students should get such an opportunity. They must also ensure that the admission process/ entrance exam is accessible. Just getting admission is not enough if institutions can't provide the required resources. Once that first step is done, they should consciously have a committee of students and teachers who can help in the process of studying, getting internships, or talking on their behalf to firms or other organisations. They may also consider accessible exam practices suited to the needs of different students. There are several things that can be done, institutions should evolve processes and practices based on discussions with their students with disabilities."
    Key Insights for lawyers and law students with disabilities:
    • Isaac Lidsky says: "It's the idea that, like it or not, this is the challenge you confront in your life, whether it's blindness or any other disability, or any other challenge. You can wish it weren't so, you can try to deny it to yourself, you can avoid it; but ultimately, life will go by. You are solely responsible for the reality you create for yourself day in and day out. Look, I remember thinking to myself, "I'm going to look weak and vulnerable with a cane. People will pity me." But what's the alternative? Continue to try to cope? Hurt myself? Be anxious and stressful all the time? Who cares what others think and feel and say? What do I think and feel about myself, the choices that I made?"

    [Rahul Bajaj, one of the book authors, with Haben Girma, an interviewee covered in the book. The picture was taken in Oxford. Rahul has a white cane, and Haben has a guide dog]

     These interviews which have taken us on a journey through the lives and times of various people with disabilities show us that the obstacles faced by them are many and varied. The entire legal community needs to better understand the needs of the disabled and more importantly view accessibility and accommodation as a matter of right and not as a privilege or favour. This understanding and a move to make the legal profession more accessible must come from all quarters and at all levels of the hierarchy- law students and faculty, examination authorities and invigilators, recruiters and supervisors, seniors and judges must all come together to bring about perceptible and holistic change to the lamentable status quo. While we continue to believe in this ideal we are also cognizant that change is slow and often met with friction and ignorance and therefore, no change, howsoever small is insignificant and no attitudinal shift, insufficient. We hope these interviews and takeaways stay with you and at least to some extent spur you into acting in ways which make the legal profession more inclusive of the disabled. It would indeed be paradoxical if the legal community which purports to fight for the rights of the legal-illiterates and outsiders, continues to turn a blind-eye to the rights and lawful claims of an invisible minority within its own cohorts."

    Next Story