The IDIA Disability Access Programme (IDAP) was launched in January this year. As part of the programme, we’ve initiated a series of interviews with leading legal luminaries who are disabled (including lawyers, law professors and judges).
The interviews aim to solicit actionable insights from these luminaries on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field and also seek to educate and increase awareness within the wider legal fraternity.
Through these interviews, we hope to foster meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities, who are often excluded from mainstream employment.
The first interview in this series is with Justice Zak Mohammed Yacoob, a legendary judge, social activist and educator who served as a judge on the South African Constitutional Court for 15 years. He was appointed to the bench in 1998 by Nelson Mandela.
Justice Yacoob became blind at 16 months because of meningitis. Justice Yacoob did his schooling at Durban’s Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind. He graduated from University College, Durban (now, University of Durban-Westville) with B.A. LL.B. degrees. This interview was conducted by Madhavi Singh, Rahul Bajaj and Anusha Reddy, members of the IDAP Team.
1. You served as a judge on the South African Constitutional Court for approximately 15 years from 1998 to 2013. Can you briefly tell us the key challenges you faced given your visual impairment, when compared with your sighted counterparts?
I was very fortunate- the court provided me with a very efficient, legally trained PA, a talking computer, braille printer, and a note-taker that converted text into braille and vice-versa (braille note). Reading took a long time but these tools and a dedicated PA helped.
It was necessary for me to anticipate and note ANYTHING that might come up in a case. This meant extra hours of reading which is slower by voice and braille.
2. What were the key challenges faced by a blind lawyer or judge at the trial court in those days?
More specifically, it is a widely held belief that a visually impaired judge or lawyer is often unable to assess the demeanour of a witness and/or appreciate visual/graphic evidence such as charts and maps.
Given that this is often central to trial court advocacy, how does a visually impaired person deal with these challenges?
A blind lawyer and a blind judge would both need reliable, fulltime and dedicated sighted help to help when appropriate. The theory that people need to SEE witnesses to assess their credibility is nonsensical to say the least- but is supported by too many sighted people.
3. What strategies did you adopt for reading documents produced by the counsel or the parties at the stage of arguments for reference, especially when you were required to peruse such documents in a synchronous fashion?
I found it enough to read documents during and after arguments- the documents would normally be put into braille for me. It would also be possible to copy the document on to a thumb drive so a blind person could read it on a braille note- taker (braille sense or braille note).
4. During the course of your tenure on the Constitutional Court, you must have been required to peruse voluminous public documents and records that are produced as evidence. Many of these documents are often quite old and are unavailable in soft copy. How did you read such documents?
Anything that could be scanned or converted was done. My PA and/or clerks also summarised documents and looked for specified things in a document.
5. When you started your career as a lawyer, did you face situations where people were apprehensive about hiring a blind lawyer? How did you convince them to trust you with their cases?
Yes, I did. I just worked very hard with the few things I had and produced results.
6. During your initial years as counsel, did you find it challenging to navigate through the labyrinth of court rooms, to convert physical copies of plaints and written statements into accessible formats, and to keep track of case status, which were otherwise easily accessible to your sighted peers?
Could you highlight how you dealt with these accessibility issues especially at a time when digital material and software was not readily available?
I had a full-time paid reader who was excellent, not only because of an empathetic nature, but, more importantly because of sheer, hard efficiency.
7. You have been associated with the South African legal system since 1973.
A common refrain that one hears from employers and persons in positions of power, when demanding reasonable accommodation, is that such accommodation can only be provided in developed countries whose judicial institutions possess adequate resources.
Has it, therefore, been harder for you to obtain reasonable accommodation and function with maximum efficiency in a developing country with resource constraints?
I paid for my own reasonable accommodation until I worked for the Independent Electoral Commission, the Constitution writing/negotiation process, and my appointment to the Constitutional Court. I earned enough to do this but was less well off than my peers as a result. My wife’s separate employment and salary was also very useful.
8. Did you work at an office of a senior lawyer in your initial days? If yes, can you share with us instances of your seniors ensuring that the working environment was inclusive?
In India, many employers/ seniors are reluctant to train a blind lawyer under the pretext that the courts are inaccessible to the blind and that he/she would be better off at a desk job. Do you have any advice that you would like to share with such employers/seniors to counter their belief?
I was always self- employed. In fact, I was forced to go the self- employment route (advocate rather than attorney) because many attorneys refused to employ me as a candidate attorney (using all sorts of false reasons). I hope things are changing in India and I hope they can use the examples of others.
Justice Yacoob delivering keynote address at IDIA 5th Anniversary Event.
9. In the initial phase of one’s legal career, one is often required to perform tasks such as correctly labelling annexures, running from court to court demanding the grant of adjournments or performing tasks of a largely clerical character such as due diligence in a commercial law firm or translation work in a lawyer’s office.
Since these tasks are often more inaccessible than those which require the application of one’s intellectual ability, what insights would you like to share with young blind lawyers for jumping through these loops effectively?
A sighted assistance is essential for these unless you have an exceptionally gifted blind person who is extremely mobile, sensitive and independent. All blind people are not the same.
10. In the last two decades, adaptive technology has replaced Braille as the principal means for a blind person to acquire information. What, in your view, should be the ideal balance between Braille, assistive technology and sighted assistance for a blind lawyer?
I think each blind person would require a different balance. I use braille for anything that needs to be carefully studied and other assistive technology for the rest.
11. You have played a very important role in the framing of the constitution of South Africa and have also been a judge of the Constitutional Court. What do you think is the role of a country’s Constitution in protecting the rights of its differently abled citizens?
The Constitution is for equality and provides the basis for a social movement to eventually achieve this. Nevertheless, government remains tardy and inefficient in many respects.