The Supreme Court’s e-committee has been working to make digital infrastructure in the judicial system more accessible to persons with disabilities, apex court’s Justice D Y Chandrachud said on Saturday. He lamented that despite necessary laws, many government and private buildings, transport, parks and a host of other spaces continue to be inaccessible to persons with disabilities.
Justice Chandrachud, who is the chairperson of the Supreme Court’s e-committee, said though much more needs to be done to make the judiciary accessible to people with disabilities, it is progressing in the right direction. With the apex court poised to join the National Judicial Data Grid in the near future, all decisions of the top court will be available in a free text search format which has accessibility built into it, he said.
He said the e-committee, in collaboration with the National Informatics Centre, has also created a judgement search portal accessible to persons with disabilities (PWDs) and over 75 lakh verdicts of the high court will be freely available. Delivering the third ‘Professor Shamnad Basheer Memorial Lecture, 2022’ on the topic ‘Making disability rights real: addressing accessibility and more’, he expressed the hope that more such people will be able to preside as judges in Indian courts.
Justice Chandrachud said at the Supreme Court, the endeavour has been to make the process and system accessible to the PWDs. “The e-committee of the Supreme Court has been working to make the digital infrastructure of the Indian judicial system more accessible to persons with disabilities.
“We have introduced audio captchas on the Supreme Court as well as high court websites to ensure that the visually impaired professionals face no hindrances in looking up the cause list or the case status," he said.
Justice Chandrachud said they have also ensured that case files are readable and screen-reader friendly to make them accessible to the PWDs.
He said in the legal fraternity, one needs to ask if the legal profession is providing reasonable accommodation to persons with disabilities. “Of course, I will be the first to admit that much needs to be done to make our judiciary fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
"But I can say that at least, we have taken the first step in the right direction," he said during the lecture organised by a legal news portal.
He said that through the initiatives of the e-committee, the high courts of Orissa and Kerala have adopted the paperless court systems and digitisation of files and court records will ensure that courts remain accessible to the PWDs.
“We have also tried to make the Indian judicial services more inclusive by removing barriers to the entry of persons with disabilities," Justice Chandrachud said.
“My hope for the future and a wish to Genie, if I may, is that our country will see a counterpart of the visually challenged South African judge of the constitutional court, Zak Yacoob, and many more in high courts and district courts, besides of course in the Supreme Court of India," he said.
Justice Chandrachud said most legal databases are inaccessible to the PWDs and the presence of access barriers casts a chilling effect on their ability to practice law.
He said despite laws mandating disabled-friendly infrastructure, public transport, government and private buildings, hospitals, libraries, parks and a host of other spaces continue to be inaccessible to the PWDs.
He said it is incumbent on all the institutions, be the governmental or private, and all individuals to do their bit to ensure a more just world for PWDs.
“Governmental or private entities must ensure that laws and policies are being complied with. This is of the foremost importance," Justice Chandrachud said.
He said disability is a social construct and the notions of normalcy and intelligence are deeply rooted in the centuries-old prejudice against the PWDs.
He said PWDs are stereotyped as being less capable and less intelligent than their able-bodied counterpart.
“The differences between able-bodied people and persons with disabilities, both real and perceived, give rise to immense stigma in society. Children often bully their disabled classmates and friends and adults with disability too are not treated with respect and empathy," Justice Chandrachud said.
He referred to a story about how ramps were built and installed overnight at some historic sites in Delhi as theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking was to visit India in 2001.
He also referred to the movie, ‘Margarita With A Straw’, which was a story about a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy. Justice Chandrachud said PWDs do not require pity but the entitlement to be treated as equals.
“We must aim towards a just society which accounts for their needs," he said, adding that the exercise of rights and freedom is necessary for social participation and to live a dignified and independent life. He focused on two specific aspects integral to the full development of life — education and livelihood.
Justice Chandrachud said the reality is that most schools and higher educational institutions in India do not account for any reasonable accommodation that PWDs might require. “We as a society need to understand the educational needs of the students with disability and address them in a collaborative manner," he said.
Justice Chandrachud said public and private organisations must ensure that PWDs develop skills during their employment to progress in their careers. He said that technology can play an essential role in creating inclusive and accessible workplaces.
Professor Basheer, a noted legal scholar, was the founder of Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education (IDIA) and the intellectual property blog, SpicyIP.