Disability rights are human rights: improving digital accessibility in law

The digital realm has transformed the world in immeasurable ways since the dawn of the world wide web. Digital platforms and their content play a significant part in daily lives. To not have access is akin to a lack of food and water. It starves the very essence of one’s being and results in a technological famine.

Despite the rapid innovations that continue to transform digital realms, the majority of these platforms, and their respective digital content, are not accessible to a significant demographic: people with disabilities.

The global pandemic has brought incalculable challenges to people worldwide. Within the dark clouds, however, can be found a silver lining; opportunities to be more precise. Among them has been the urgent realization that virtual events and meetings, as well as essential digital service platforms, must be accessible. It is no longer a nice to have; it is a necessity.

Of course, it takes time to implement digital transitions. But what has taken more than a decade of building awareness for digital accessibility, albeit minuscule, has effectively been highlighted as an unexpected silver lining.

In the legal realm, law students, who rely on assistive technology to access virtual lectures, digital libraries, and journals, were met with a scale of exclusion not experienced in the years prior to the pandemic. Disabled claimants, defendants and the general public who require access to court proceedings, case law, judgments and trial outcomes were suddenly at an impasse, their assistive technology unable to penetrate the inaccessible formats, even if it concerned their own cases.

Law or not, digital accessibility is evidenced, thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns, not only as a human right but also as an essential service. While some things have improved, such as the introduction of captions on virtual meeting platforms, there is still a long journey ahead.

Although the current pandemic has forced court hearings to move to the virtual environment, it cannot be assumed that this will be fully reversed when the pandemic ends. Virtual hearings offer more flexibility for claimants, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, and observers. For those with disabilities, virtual hearings may provide a more equitable experience. The digital records serve not only the members of the court but also those studying law, preparing pleadings, and searching for case law to support their matters. General interest from the public, who also has a right to access these resources, is limited to only those who do not rely on assistive technology to navigate these resources.

Legal professionals are obliged to ensure that those with digital access needs who follow in our footsteps, who rely on published case law, judgments, and legal discourse, or who seek virtual consultation are afforded the same access as everyone else.

Exemplary individuals such as Lainey Feingold, Judge/Dr. Fayyaz Afzal, OBE, Jess Inaba, Prof. Michael Stein, Florence Ndagire; Haben Girma, Judge Richard Bernstein, and many more pursue the realization of digital accessibility as a lawful right and a rightful place within the legal domain. Fundamentally, disability rights are human rights. And who better than those entrusted with upholding the rights of citizens than legal professionals? I, for one, pursue this right not only as a legal responsibility but also as a moral one.