One year after losing my sight completely, I started charting out my plan to pursue music as all visually challenged people stereotypically do. But life had other plans. Encouraged by a couple of school friends, I filled the form for the Common Law Admission Test and prepared for it for a month. With one-to-one mentorship by sympathetic faculty at a coaching institute, who offered to personally help me out even when the institute refused to provide soft copies of the examination material over copyright concerns, I got a decent score. Everybody speculated that I would make it to the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. But I dismissed such speculation because I felt that my father would not let me go because of my disability.
Days after the announcement of the results for the general category and hundreds of unanswered calls to the CLAT consortium seeking update on the release of results of the special ability person (SAP) category, I finally received an intimation that I was AIR 4 in the category and I had made it to the NLSIU. My happiness knew no bounds and so did my fear. To my surprise, my father readily agreed to send me to the NLSIU and the challenges began.
We did not get any intimation from the admission office regarding the special accommodations for SAP students till the date of orientation. I had heard that no 100% blind person had graduated from the law school before me. So I did not have anyone to look at, for inspiration and guidance. My father and I landed in Bangalore in a sheer sense of confusion and uncertainty.
During the orientation, my father went and sat beside the vice-president of the Student Bar Association and passed on a chit that read, “My daughter is blind, please help.” The vice-president was a warm individual who wrote back, “Don’t worry uncle, I will handle.” Later, he gave a pep talk to my batch on the need to treat me normally instead of patronising or segregating me.
Later, in an interaction with the Vice-Chancellor, my father raised the same issue with him. He reassured us that he would treat me like his daughter. But his words were not backed by any robust institutional support.
Initially, my peers took me to classes, library, and mess. I missed meals when there was no one to guide me. A kind and sensitive librarian readily provided me with scanned copies of course material, but I skipped readings for class and exams when he was not available. A bunch of kind seniors sat with me to describe the graphs for economics, and I sat clueless in most classes while the professors drew visual charts on the board.
With time and support from peers and select professors and college staff, I learnt to walk with the help of a cane, I learnt to convert reading material for optical character recognition and I learnt to descriptively understand graphs.
A far-sighted professor insisted that I use a laptop instead of a scribe, which significantly enhanced my typing speed and computer skills. A total of three professors out of those for the 60 courses I took made it a point to write to me before the commencement of the course to check with me on my accessibility needs. A few professors went out of their way to patronise me for my achievements. Another few refused to supply PowerPoint presentations before classes citing pedagogical reasons.
I met different kinds of peers and teaching staff who were all great and it would not be an overstatement that I made it through law school only because of them. Towards the end, I had a close-knit group of peers who offered to help me with residential, academic, and logistic challenges due to inaccessible infrastructure and attitudinal barriers.
Accessibility and reasonable accommodation, which entails making necessary adjustments to the infrastructure to enable people with disabilities to perform at par with others, have been read into the golden triangle of Article 14, which guarantees the right to equality, Article 19, which guarantees the right to free expression, and Article 21, which guarantees the right to life, by the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in Vikash Kumar v UPSC. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, writing for himself and Justice M.R. Shah, declared reasonable accommodation to be the birthright of the disabled.
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities act, 2016 enshrines the principle of non-discrimination in Section 3. It mandates institutions of higher education to reserve 5% seats for PwDs in Section 32 and further mandates them to provide reasonable accommodation and accessible infrastructure in Sections 16, 17 and 18 and 45. Most notably, the statute mandates all establishments to notify an equal opportunity policy detailing the measures to be taken to materialise its provisions.
Against this backdrop of this constitutional and legal scheme, the admission office should have reached out to me to proactively understand the nature of my disability and the accommodations that I require. The sensitisation of my peers should have been done by the administration in collaboration with a disability rights organisation. I ought to have been provided mobility training and support by the institution in the interim. While there should have been disability audits to check for fixes that were required to make the campus fully disabled friendly. I should have been supplied accessible reading material as a matter of pre-empted policy. I should have got faculty mentorship to navigate graphs as a matter of reasonable accommodation.
Putting my experience at law school and my limited understanding of disability law together, I would pitch for a proactive disability policy for the NLSIU and other law schools and educational institutions at large that does not require to be machined by good and sympathetic individuals — because goodness and sympathy is scarce and transient. If good people leave, the marginalised are left in the lurch too.
This makes the case for a strongly worded equal opportunity policy that guarantees academic, digital, infrastructural and residential accessibility to the disabled. A policy that mandates professors to make their pedagogies inclusive, that mandates libraries to enhance digital accessibility, that mandates IT departments to make their portals accessible, that mandates engineers to make their master plans based on universal design and that mandates wardens to make their hostel policies accommodative of the needs of the disabled. This would ensure that inclusion is not at the mercy of good and sympathetic people because everybody does not find them.