The Empathy Deficit at National Law Universities – By Shreyas Alevoor & Swati Agrawal
Our guest columnists for the week are Shreyas Alevoor, a student at National Law University, Odisha and Swati Agrawal, Director (Operations), at IDIA Charitable Trust. A pan-India movement, IDIA trains underprivileged students and helps transform them into leading lawyers and community advocates.
The IDIA Charitable Trust (IDIA) conducted a diversity survey of five leading National Law Universities (NLUs), that have been called the “islands of excellence”. The survey captures the extent of diversity in these NLUs. It records the experiences of first year students and documents their socio-economic profiles. The survey witnessed a 95.7% participation rate, with 515 (of 538) first-year students undertaking the survey.
These five NLUs were National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU); National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University of Law, Hyderabad; National Law Institute University (NLIU), Bhopal; West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata, and National Law University (NLU), Delhi.
‘Islands of Excellence’ exclude marginalised groups
IDIA’s Diversity Survey 2018-19 shows that these premier NLUs of our country have a long way to go in making themselves accessible for Persons with Disabilities (PWD). The list of reasons for their inaccessibility is long and concerning. We highlight some of the potential areas for immediate attention and reform, and offers some suggestions.
Lack of empathy for disabled evident in many ways
- Representation of Persons with Disabilities
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 (RPwD Act) requires that every educational institution eligible for aid from the government reserve not less than 5% of its seats for persons with “benchmark disabilities”. All NLUs are established by an Act of their respective state legislatures, and are also eligible for assistance from the central government. Accordingly, they are required to comply with this requirement. However, the 2018-19 diversity survey by IDIA showed that only 3.3% of the surveyed students were admitted under persons with disabilities category. Further investigation is needed for understanding this gap.
Are some of the seats that fall under PWD category not being filled by the NLUs in practice? Or, are there lesser number of candidates applying for these seats?
The students taking the survey were asked if they have any disability/disabilities. For the purposes of this question of the survey, we relied on the definition provided under the RPwD Act, which holds that a “person with disability” is a person with long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment which, in interaction with barriers, hinders his full and effective participation in society equally with others. As you may note, we did not restrict our question to the list of disabilities mentioned under the Act. 6.21% of the surveyed students identified themselves as PWD.
This means that there is a huge gap between the percentage of students identifying themselves as PWD and the percentage of students who were admitted under the category. This could be because the list of disabilities under the RPwD Act, though expanded, does not cover all the disabilities. Secondly, this could also be due to a number of applicants being unaware of the change in the position of law (from 1995 Act to 2016 Act, which expanded the categories to include intellectual/ learning disabilities as well as mental illnesses). Thirdly, it could be due to them not knowing if their condition qualified as a benchmark disability for seeking admission under the PWD category.
- Participation in law school life & exclusion
Over 50% of students reported difficulties in coping with/understanding the academic curriculum. Most of the students whose schooling was in a vernacular tongue found the curriculum difficult. The atmosphere at NLUs is highly competitive and the academic curriculum is often not created keeping in mind the needs of students from diverse backgrounds.
Study material in inaccessible formats
Participation in co-curricular/extra-curricular activities such as mooting, debating, alternative dispute resolution competitions, and activity-based committees/societies are an integral part of the law school experience. A large number of students cited lack of confidence, social awkwardness and language barriers as reasons for not participating in these activities.
Therefore, it should not come across as a surprise that data collected from two another surveys – one in National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in 2016 and one in National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) in 2019 showed that it is mostly students from elite/upper-class/caste backgrounds that participated in these activities. Persons from Scheduled Castes/Tribes and persons with disabilities are systematically excluded. We fear that similar trends could be expected at other NLUs considering that most of law schools do not have policies for equitable representation in student-run committees. There should be efforts made to make these activities more inclusive and accessible.
Most materials required for preparation for these activities tend to be in physical form, which are difficult to procure in an accessible format. For example, usually in moot court competitions, the memorials of the other party are provided in hard copies. Some competitions may not allow for use of laptops. Fancy formatting of submissions may be expected. Barriers like these make campus activities inaccessible for persons with disabilities. We suggest that these activity-based committees and societies should find ways to encourage students from diverse communities to apply, in addition to carrying out reforms for making participation more accessible.
- Discrimination faced by PWD
5.24% of the students said that have faced discriminatory behaviour and/or disparaging remarks because of their disabilities, by other students while 0.97% said that they have faced the same from the faculty/staff on account of their disabilities. It is extremely worrying that such a large proportion of the students who reported as having a disability are facing discrimination from their fellow students. This highlights the need for sensitisation in law colleges. The University Grants Commission (UGC) requires the formation of Equal Opportunity Cells and Internal Committees for taking care of day to day needs of PWDs as well as for implementation of the various schemes. All NLUs should form these two bodies and these bodies should take proactive steps towards ensuring an accessible and non-discriminatory campus for students with disabilities.
- Disability, mental health & counselling services
The number of students who have reported facing discrimination or disparaging remarks from their faculty and students has increased. A comparison of the IDIA Diversity Surveys from 2018-2019 and 2016-2017 reveal a disturbing statistic – the number of students who reported facing some kind of discrimination and disparaging remarks from the students has increased from 28% to 53.59%. Similarly, the number of students who reported having faced discrimination/ disparaging remarks from faculty or staff increased by around 16% in 2018-19. This rise in the number of students reporting discrimination is worrying to say the least.
While only 2.52% of the students in our survey reported some form of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the context of “disability”, as many as 23.88% (123) students have reported to be facing some mental health issue in the context of a more generic question. Such a high number of reported cases of mental health issues raises serious concerns regarding the environment in our top NLUs, and we fear that the number may still be underreported owing to the stigma attached to mental illnesses. Whatever be the precise number of students suffering from mental health issues, there is no doubt about the fact that there is negligible institutional support for such students in the vast majority of NLUs.
NLSIU Bangalore has seen two student suicides in the past five years, while in 2018, a student at the newly established NLU-Jabalpur committed suicide after he was allegedly humiliated for lack of proficiency in English. This raises several pertinent concerns around the environment at these “elite” institutions, the social stigma attached to mental illnesses, and lack of good counselling services. Some NLUs do provide for counselling services to their students. In general, a lack of awareness and positive discourse around mental health and disabilities and institutional support is a concerning issue which needs redressal.
IDIA has been working towards promoting accessibility in NLUs. It has partnered with NLU-Odisha and NUJS-Kolkata in opening “accessibility labs” in in 2018 and 2020. These labs are equipped with accessible software and hardware. It is also good to note that Gujarat National Law University established an Enabling Unit for students with disabilities. Some of the things that can help in making campuses more accessible are sensitisation sessions for staff and students, recording of lectures, academic support, counselling and mentorship.
The diversity surveys over the years have time and again exposed the failings of the NLU ecosystem as elitist and ableist hubs, where privilege is disguised as “merit”. The solutions however, are in plain sight. While technology can be a great equaliser, the real solution lies in empathy. We need to solve this empathy deficit before we move on to grander solutions.
IDIA is a pan-India movement to train underprivileged students and help transform them into leading lawyers and community advocates. IDIA is premised on the notion that access to premier legal education empowers marginalized communities and helps them help themselves. IDIA selects and trains students from underprivileged backgrounds (IDIA Trainees) to crack top law entrance examinations in India. Once they are admitted to top law colleges, it provides a scholarship to these students (IDIA Scholars) that comprises of financial support, trainings and mentorship among other things.
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