In our time at Mission Accessibility, an NGO working to deconstruct accessibility barriers for persons with disabilities (PwD) through sensitisation, capacity building and grievance redressal, we have often been asked why we specifically chose to work on “disability law”. The answer is — we didn’t. And for very good reasons.
Our knowledge of the lived experiences of the PwD community in India and aboard taught us what five years of law school could not — disability is not an isolated experience. An individual’s disability interacts, negotiates and re-negotiates with numerous phenomena that might typically not fall within the broader realm of what society perceives to be “disability law”.
For instance, the right to vote under the Rights of Persons with Disability Act, 2016 (RPwD), remains toothless until voting technologies are made accessible for PwDs. Similarly, the right to community life and family codified in the RPwD Act remains redundant until relevant family law legislation is amended to account for the legal capacity and support needs of PwDs.
Against this backdrop, we soon realised that specific legislation on disability or a specific course on “disability law” would never be able to fully address the complexities arising from the intersection of disability with mainstream apparatus.
This led us to acknowledge that disability discrimination would remain ubiquitous until we create a generation of individuals/professionals/lawmakers/judges who have inherently inclusive mindsets, and who do not think of disability to be an outlier to the mainstream. At the same time, we realised that this would require imparting disability education to everyone ranging from a corporate lawyer to a scientist, from a policymaker to an entrepreneur.
This would go a long way in inspiring such individuals to integrate disability responsiveness in everything ranging from designing a taxation policy that has an accessible filing mechanism to a skyscraper based upon universal design.
With this objective in mind, we decided to inquire about where we stand today with regard to integrating disability studies into our mainstream education system. Starting with law schools, we noted that NUJS Kolkata offers a regular elective course on disability and accessibility. NLSIU, Bangalore offered a course on “contesting ableism” once in 2022.
Whilst NLUO also offers a seminar course on disability law, such courses or any of its concomitants are absent from the curriculum of law schools such as NLU-Delhi, NLUJ-Jodhpur, HNLU-Raipur, GNLU-Gandhinagar, RMNLU-Lucknow and, RGNUL-Patiala. As a necessary corollary to this absence, we also found that disability-related discussions, such as reservations for PwDs during constitutional law courses or agency of PwDs during marriage and adoption during family law courses rarely came up during class discussions.
We noted that disability literature is conspicuously absent from reading lists of law courses across NLUs. The limited contexts where disability is even mentioned in passing are when the professors themselves have a disability, the likes of which are a handful.
One of the drawbacks of the systemic absence of such conversations on disability in course curriculums is that it instils students with an incorrect conceptual understanding of disability. The most widespread implication of such absence is benevolent ableism — a charitable treatment of persons with disabilities that is widely perceived to be a desirable practice but, which further bolsters existing prejudices and stigmatises PwDs as weak and incapable of any real progress.
Another implication at the opposite end of the spectrum is the lack of sensitivity amongst one’s peers towards their disability. For instance, one of us witnessed regressive comments from our peers on aspects of eugenics in our family law class. The comment was centred around the need to eliminate the birth of PwDs by entering into exogamous unions and there was little to no intervention from the professor to educate or sensitise the students.
Having ascertained that this current state of affairs regarding mainstreaming disability in legal education is far from adequate, we embarked on a journey to address these systemic failures from the ground up. In this vein, we are launching Project Sashakti which essentially means “to empower” in Sanskrit.
Under this project, we have created a course curriculum on disability and reasonable accommodations which can be offered to students at the university level. This course curriculum not only covers jurisprudential topics such as basics, philosophy and the economics of accessibility but also the law on reasonable accommodations and how to implement them.
For instance, we have created a separate module on ensuring the creation of accessible PDFs, emails, web pages and social media posts. We supplement the same by proposing practical exercises to be undertaken in the classroom itself, such as adding alternative text to images and complying with an accessibility checklist while drafting emails. We intend to build a network of professors who pick up this course outline and offer seminar and credit courses across NLUs to get the discussions around disability, inclusion and equality going.
Through this initiative, we hope to integrate conversations on accessibility into the classroom and nudge those implementational principles to the centre stage, which have, unfortunately, remained confined to the margins until now.
The creation of a generation of legislators, judges or policymakers, who think inclusively right from the foothills of their professional careers would go a long way in ensuring fuller and more equal lives for persons with disabilities in the times to come.
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