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Disability groups fume over Supreme Court order on "reasonable sight, hearing, speech faculties" for judicial officer

"Regressive." "Disgusting."

Those are the words being used to describe the Supreme Court judgement upholding a 50% disability limit in hearing and vision disability for the post of a judicial officer. The ruling was given by a two-member bench of Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice K M Joseph while hearing an appeal from a petitioner who was held ineligible for the post of a civil judge because of a 70% disability.

The bench ruled, "A judicial officer in a State has to possess reasonable limit of the faculties of hearing, sight and speech in order to hear cases and write judgments and, therefore, stipulating a limit of 50% disability in hearing impairment or visual impairment as a condition to be eligible for the post is a legitimate restriction i.e. fair, logical and reasonable."

Disability rights advocate Nipun Malhotra says he will challenge the ruling.

We have gone through the ruling in detail and we will be challenging and demanding that a larger bench reverse the judgement. The ruling makes no sense. Consider the fact that someone has overcome his or her disability to become a legal luminary, then how does it make them incompetent to be a judge? On what basis did the judges decide this? - Nipun Malhotra, Disability rights advocate

Rahul Bajaj, who is studying law at Oxford University and is a recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, says the order is "emblematic of the lack of awareness about the capabilities of the disabilities that is prevalent in our society, is based on unfounded assumptions and stereotypes and has the potential of undoing the significant gains that our disability rights jurisprudence has yielded in recent years."

Bajaj should know. A visually impaired person himself, he has an outstanding academic record and has broken many of these stereotypes in a series of interviews with judges with disabilities from many countries.

"The question I would ask the learned judges who delivered this verdict: if they went blind and were forced to resign on that ground, what would their reaction be like? he asks.

Varying positions

The recent order comes a week after Bajaj moved an application in the Supreme Court seeking to make India's judicial infrastructure accessible for people with disabilities. Following his application, the apex court asked high courts and the SC registry to report their views on those directions. "It also directed their Registrar General to work with us to address the inaccessibility of SC website due to captchas. I am afraid it appears that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," adds Bajaj.

Bajaj is being represented by Advocate Jai Dehadrai, who has also argued for Malhotra in many important accessibility-related cases, including the ongoing petition to make Indian Sign Language official.

Dehadrai plans to represent Malhotra in this matter as well and says the order ignores well established constitutional protections extended to people with disabilities and that technological advancements nullify the argument that people with visual or hearing impairments cannot become judges.

"Ask any lawyer, and they will tell you of dozens of their own colleagues that are teetering on the brink of complete blindness or rely upon hearing aids due to age, but continue to participate robustly in the system of justice....It is strange in this day and age that the Supreme Court would pass a judgment which has the direct effect of demoralising an entire community by choosing to focus more on traditional notions of 'disability' rather than paying attention to what these individuals can do. This judgment will also make it harder for the disabled to shake-off the societal perception that they are in some way less capable to participate in the mainstream. Legally speaking, this judgment is contrary to what is contained in Articles 14, 15 and 21 of our Constitution, which protects against inequality and also specifically prohibits the State from discriminating against its citizens."

Compelling arguments that make the point in every way, legally and morally. And given the court's own progressive stance on many cases related to accessibility and inclusion, this recent order does not look like it will stand for long.

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