IDAP Interview Series: Interview X with Nirmita Narasimhan

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Our next interview in this series features Nirmita Narasimhan, a Policy Director with the Centre for Internet and Society. Nirmita did her LL.B. from Campus Law Centre, Delhi University in 2002. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in German and a Ph.D. in Music. As a part of CIS she has done extensive work on web accessibility and was involved in drafting the Indian National Policy on Universal Electronic Accessibility. She has worked closely with different departments of the Government of India to bring accessibility into their policies and programmes.

In recognition of her path-breaking work in the field of digital accessibility, she has received numerous awards such as the National Award for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (2010), the NIVH (National Institute for the Visually Handicapped) Excellence Award (2011) and the NCPEDP-Emphasis Universal Design award in 2016. She played a key role in amending the Indian Copyright Act to incorporate exceptions for people with print disabilities and launched the widely acclaimed nationwide Right to Read campaigns.

Nirmita’s experience is not just limited to policy work – she is a widely published author and has assisted national and international bodies in the creation of several reports on promoting accessibility rights of people with disabilities.

This interview was conducted by Madhavi Singh and Anusha Reddy. The interview was transcribed by Veda Singh, IDIA intern and student at Jindal Global Law School. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Picture of Nirmita Narasimhan

  1.  Could you please describe to us the exact nature of your disability?

I have something called Stargardt disease. For me it came when I was 9 or so. When I started, I could read with the help of a magnifying glass and I would enlarge things to read and now I completely rely on screen reading software.

  1. Could you please describe to us the reasonable accommodation provided by your school and college, if any?

In school nothing! I used to read and write using a magnifying glass –reading was a bit of a struggle. My handwriting was really bad and people didn’t understand it. I never asked for anything. Only for my Board exams I had asked for a writer because that’s something you really can’t risk.

  1. Most schools use boards to teach. How did you manage?

No, it just depended on the individual teacher and maybe I was also very inhibited at that time in my life. I wouldn’t go up to the teacher and simply say “please read it out.” Consequently, I always regretted that I was not good at math, because it was always on the board. I managed back then with the help of my parents and sister.

  1. You have a large number of educational qualifications to your name. You initially studied German and Carnatic music and only pursued law later. What factors influenced you in deciding to study law?

It may not be anything glamourous as really being passionate about it. But going back to German – I really liked the language, and more so due to the teaching methods because this was the first time I was out of a classroom setting into a setting where there were 10-12 students and the teachers were really good and used unconventional methods. They were accommodative about exams. The teacher could write exams for me or tell me what to do – it was not like a fixed system. Whenever a system came into play, inaccessibility also came into play. Whenever it was an individual, and usually somebody who was not heartless, it was pretty okay.

One time in an exam, they gave a printout, and I couldn’t read it. At that time, I wrote the one answer I could, left the rest of the question, gave the paper and walked out. When the results were declared, I got an A or A+! I was shocked. I went to the teacher and said “How can you do this to me?” He said “I know that had you been able to read it, you would’ve written because I see you every day in class. That was probably wrong of us and we should have ensured that you could’ve read the paper.” I think that was a unique experience. It happens to very few people and it certainly never happens very often in one’s lifetime, unless you’re extraordinarily lucky. But these kinds of experiences during my graduation really helped get a better sense of the world.

After that I started my M.A. When you’re trying to do translation you keep referring to a dictionary. Until my M.A., I used to keep enlarging a basic dictionary into such thick volumes that I couldn’t even carry them. I realised that this couldn’t go on all my life and beyond a point I could not expect my father or mother to read out, because they did not know German and would not always be with me.  So, I thought that this is not going to work out and at that time I gave the law entrance exam.

As for music, I did my diploma while I was doing my B.A. I didn’t consciously take up music immediately after my B.A. because people thought that was the obvious career for me since I had a visual disability and that really irritated me. After having finished my law, somewhere along the way I thought that so what if music is the expected career for someone who is visually impaired, it’s just something I wanted to do.

My main motive was actually not to fall into things which people expect are easy. When I was joining law many people said “You shouldn’t join law, you won’t be able to refer to anything.” I got so annoyed and would say – “Listen it’s my life, if I’m going to live for 85 years and if I waste one year in between, I have no problems. So why does it bother you? I don’t mind failure, but at least let me try. If I can’t, I’ll leave it and go back to sociology or some other subjects.” So, that’s why I got into law, and I have no regrets. It was tough for multiple reasons.

  1. Out of all your diverse educational courses (law, Carnatic music and German) with their varied teaching methodology and course work which field do you think was the most exclusionary of people with disabilities and which one was the most accommodative?

I think it depends on the institution. It’s not fair to compare Delhi University with JNU. JNU was more open and the teachers were creative in the ways they taught, recognising individual abilities. It was completely different from DU which had approximately 80 people in a class and typically the lecturer came, gave a lecture and left. I had a good experience in JNU, because it was not bound by systems and is generally a good place to study.  

The Faculty for Music and Fine Arts at DU was also very accommodative, especially so because my Guru ensured that I got what I needed. However I found studying law to be really difficult – at that time I didn’t have any books. If I would go to the library, each and every book you pick up would be underlined with a pen. If you try to scan it – at that time the technology was very slow but even if I was ready to do that, if something is underlined the scan is obsolete. How much can one human being read out to you – a constitutional law book is of 300-1000 pages? You have to refer to so many books!

So, I couldn’t read any book, I didn’t know where to start. Then I was actually forced to rely on these dukkhis. I think the main reason they were useful is that they weren’t underlined, I could purchase them, tear them and scan them. By that time I had also been introduced to computers, and had bought an OCR having paid $1000 for it at that time. Even after that since the paper quality was not good I couldn’t read much.

I know this is probably an awful thing to say, and though I would’ve loved to have a more nuanced understanding of the law but it required me to read a lot which I was unable to do – not because I didn’t want to but because I just couldn’t.

  1. You were an exceptional student – topper of your batch and a gold medalist. To what extent was your hunger for success fueled by your desire to demonstrate your capabilities and to not let your vision impairment become your defining characteristic?

Is my success driven by my desire to show the world? No. Even when I did law– forget showing other people, I just needed to do something “normal” or something that other people were doing – something that is a profession, that’s it. Everything else I did was not to prove anything. After a point, I didn’t really think much about having a disability it’s just a part of who you are. I just wanted to study well.

  1. You have worked in the field of policy research, as a lawyer in a corporate law firm as well as in advocacy, how do you think these professions are different in terms of the obstacles they pose to lawyers with disabilities? Have there been any reasonable accommodation?

Policy research is my current work. The fact that I am currently using technology and my office is pro-accessibility shows that reasonable accommodation is provided here. I tried both courts and corporate law, they were never areas I wanted to be in permanently but I thought having studied law I should have some kind of exposure. At that point of time there were a number of documents, annexures, etc. and to file them you could always hire somebody, but it wasn’t something you could have done for yourself– this was around 2002. And in the corporate field, what I found difficult was working with track changes and deadlines. I was not very excited by the work to stick it out and really prove a point. I know some people that did. I think you need to be motivated enough to tackle the issue, I was not motivated enough by the people to conquer these issues and it didn’t excite me.

  1. You started your career in law with Mr. Rungta. Could you kindly let us know your reasons for choosing to work for a blind lawyer?

I wanted to know how he worked. If you mean whether it was difficult getting into other law firms, yes it was. I did try to ask people in firms but they were completely not open to having me. One or two said that we could have a trial – without pay however, to which I asked if they were paying other juniors, and if so then I didn’t want to join. I worked with Mr. Rungta for a few months and then moved on.

  1. This is a problem most students face wherein employers are apprehensive of hiring people with disabilities, so what advice would you give especially to the corporate field?

I think it is a really negative attitude – people see what you cannot do and not what you can do. And at some point everyone has certain skills, and you as an employer need to be discerning– it shows how smart you are whether you can identify how to tap into that person’s skill or not.

It’s not the time for people to be telling them what they cannot do. The students already know that tasks are difficult for them – they don’t need to hear it from their employers too. So, I think there is a huge issue there. It’s for them to figure out and work with the person to see how to make it happen. It can happen! It might not be exactly the same thing that you envisaged but something can be worked out.

I never came across an employer who was willing to do this. Believe me, I’ve gone from door to door after I finished my law degree and it was a very demotivating time. I feel that it is sad especially now with the kind of technology we have. Maybe at that time I could agree and understand their concerns that I wouldn’t be able to look up case law, but things are different now. Another problem is that the student does not know the range of the work there is, hence it becomes difficult to articulate what he/she wants/can do. I think it is important, even for institutions to ensure that they help place their students, in some of these big law firms, starting from internships.

  1. If you had to tell employers why they should hire people with disability, what would it be?

Do not judge a person merely by virtue of whether he/ she has a disability. Be fair and give them a chance as well. There are many people who became great, just because they got a break. There is great value in making your work place more inclusive and diverse. One can evolve work arounds for most issues and technology has made many things possible.

  1. As a Policy Director with the Centre for Internet and Society, you have done extensive work on web accessibility for persons with disabilities. Given that technology has been an enabler for persons with disabilities, do you believe that the government and society (technologists/businesses/start-ups) have a responsibility to design keeping accessibility in mind from the very beginning?

Definitely, there are no two ways about it. They should, but they aren’t doing it. The first policy on accessibility was in 2009 by the NIC and it continued to remain inaccessible. The second one in 2013 was the national electronic accessibility policy. However, even today many websites are not accessible. After that policy, so many government initiatives, some 700 mobile applications, etc. came up, of which most are inaccessible.

Now everything is on mobile apps, whether private or government, so we did a lot of studies on that and wrote about it. We put together a set of guidelines and submitted them to the government to look at– otherwise there’s really no point in Digital India or Inclusive India. Of course the situation is now vastly changed, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in December 2016 and now makes compliance with accessibility standards in different domains mandatory, hopefully this will now be a game changer. It is binding not only on the government, but on the private sector as well.

It is not just a question of ‘responsibility’ –the government’s responsibility to its citizens is also not just regarding disability but about inclusiveness and the kind of society you want to be. It is about being nice and fair not just because you are responsible. It’s how you want your society to evolve.

  1. Very often I think the most accessible products benefit everyone in society. It’s not just a person with disability that is getting benefit out of it. Do you agree?

So a lot of accessibility features came up as just a market feature, for example – in the U.S., so many people read audiobooks, they just listen while they’re driving to their place of work. Another example – those squeaky shoes children wear could help a mother who is blind know where her child is moving. You can say subtitles are for deaf persons, but for a Telugu movie, people who cannot understand Telugu also can go watch it now. I think every accessibility feature has a use. So, for society and the government accessibility should be a universal goal.

  1. For private players a lot of times when you speak to them about accessibility they’re clueless or they think it is an expensive process which requires special knowledge. Do you have anything to say to such private entities like Flipkart, or Ola?

I think they’re not recognising the situation. If there are 1.3 billion people that are disabled in the world, there are 150 million people in India that are disabled – they need to realise that it is a huge market out there. Blind people are using Uber and not Ola. If they made their application accessible their market would grow. For Ola, for example it’ll ask me to rate my previous drive, and it only gives the option of 3 star with a screen reader – I can’t increase or decrease it. Now if I keep giving 3 stars only, I won’t get a driver the next time (laughs)! Uber and Amazon, both are entirely accessible and they’re international brands. You should ensure that your service is accessible in the starting itself when it is not expensive. Later it becomes more expensive and difficult to do. Private entities really need to look more into their diversity and it shouldn’t just be something they do for CSR, it is good business. It’s a good contribution to society.

  1. Recently, in a move to digitise the courts in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the integrated case management system of the Supreme Court. Given that this move could be a game changer for lawyers and litigants with disabilities, do you believe that accessibility of such platforms will be given foremost importance by the government? If not, what steps can we take to ensure that it is given importance?

The RPWD Act 2016 requires all legal services, documents etc. uploaded to be accessible. If this is not done, it would be a tragedy. Just like the case of the Digital Library of India which has over 5 lakh books, most of which are image files and inaccessible. The government should ensure that this mistake is never again replicated. The website and the documents should be accessible as per notified standards. When you’re uploading documents, sometimes you might need scanned versions in which case you must have an unofficial version or some alternative that is accessible. Even if it is for tracking new cases, or filing things through apps, it should all be accessible as per guidelines – that’s the bottom line. So, involve the experts right from the beginning.

  1. You have worked on digitization of books and general accessibility of educational resources for persons with disabilities. What in your opinion is the most resource efficient solution to the book famine currently plaguing students with print disabilities?

Every time a publisher publishes a book, they should give an accessible PDF to the public library or they should give it to the Sugamya Pustakalaya, which is an accessible online library. They’re anyway creating a PDF, they can make it accessible.  As we get more organisations to connect to the library and network, you can reach out to all the students who go to these organisations. Publishers should also consider creating and commercially selling accessible format books such as e-text and audio books.

  1. Could you tell us about your experience so far, in interacting and working with different government departments as part of various projects? As a policy researcher and advocate with a focus on the rights of persons with disabilities, what are the biggest obstacles you face in effectively lobbying for a change?

I think the obstacles are similar to the issues that you face typically while working with the Government on any issue, not just accessibility. It’s about meeting the right person. If you’re interacting only with one person, then that person gets transferred or the other people don’t know about it. I think that they need to see accessibility as something which cuts across every issue, not just something for the disabled, and that’s not happening. One also comes across people who do not consider accessibility a priority issue.

  1. A lot of students with disabilities in India, even after the completion of their education, are not in a position to compete with their able-bodied counterparts. They don’t possess soft skills like knowing how to spell correctly, socializing and corresponding with others and speaking correct English. How can this be addressed at a micro as well as macro level?

I think there is a need for more organisations who are trying to prepare candidates after their education to deal with a corporate situation. Otherwise you’re just suddenly taken and put in a place you don’t fully understand. People might be conscious about their English or other things. If not on the individual level, if corporates are hiring they may also consider seeking help from and supporting such organisations.

You should also have policies for accommodation of persons with disabilities. It is useful to have mentors, networks or groups where they can share experiences and exchange ideas on how they tackle different situations.

  1. What can law colleges do to make the educational experience better for law students with disabilities?

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.

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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. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at anusha@idialaw.com.

You can read our other interviews here.

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