Sarah Sunny: How India’s First Deaf Lawyer Made History in Supreme Court

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Last week, Sarah Sunny made history after she became India’s first deaf lawyer to argue in the country’s Supreme Court.

The 27-year-old first appeared before Chief Justice DY Chandrachud in September after the court made an exception and allowed a sign language interpreter to assist her with the arguments.

On 6 October, the court also appointed its own interpreter for Ms Sunny, the first in the court’s history, so that “she could understand what was going on” during the proceedings.

“In fact, we are thinking that for the constitution bench hearings we will have an interpreter so that everyone can follow the proceedings,” Justice Chandrachud said.

Observers say that Ms Sunny’s presence in the top court would help make the Indian legal system more inclusive and accommodative to the needs of the deaf community.

Senior lawyer Menaka Guruswamy called it a “truly historic and momentous” occasion.

Sanchita Ain, the lawyer with whom Ms Sunny works, told the BBC that Ms Sunny’s work would have positive, long-term implications. “She has broken many stereotypes, this will encourage more deaf students to study law and make the legal system accessible to the deaf,” she said.

A resident of the southern city of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), Ms Sunny has been practising law for two years.

In the city’s lower courts, she was not allowed to use an interpreter because the judges thought they would not have the required legal knowledge to understand legal terminology, she said. So she would submit her arguments in writing.

Saurav Roychowdhury, who interpreted for Ms Sarah when she first appeared before the Supreme Court, has not studied law but has experience of translating for lawyers and legal students. He has also appeared in the Delhi High Court in the past for deaf lawyers in two cases.

But no Indian sign language interpreter is trained in legal terminology at the moment – and so for anyone translating, it’s going to be a work in progress

Ms Sunny told the BBC that she was proud of how far she had come. “I wanted to show those who are cannot hear that if I can do it, they can also do it.”

Ms Sunny was born in Bengaluru. Her twin sister Maria Sunny and her brother Pratik Kuruvilla are also deaf. Mr Kuruvilla is a software engineer in the US and now teaches at a school for the deaf in Texas, while Ms Maria is a chartered accountant.

Their parents did not want their children to study in special schools for deaf children. Finding a place that was willing to take in the three siblings was hard, but they eventually found the right place for them.

In class, Ms Sunny studied by lip reading and with the help of her friends. “There were also others who made fun of me but I always argued with them,” she said.

Ms Sunny went on to study law at St. Joseph’s College in Bengaluru. Her mother, who would help her during school, could not do the same with her law course. But Ms Sunny said she got support from a friend and her siblings.

In 2021, she took the bar exam to enrol as an advocate and began practising law.

She said she was grateful to her parents for treating all three children equally and “putting us through education in a normal school because they believe in equality”.

“That’s what gave me the confidence to follow my dreams.”

Experts say that deaf people in the country are often unable to build a career in law because of stigma and the lack of interpreters in courts.

On 17 April, the Delhi High Court set a precedent when it allowed deaf lawyer Saudamini Pethe to appear in a case. Like Ms Sunny, she too had to bring an interpreter.

In September, the high court said it would start appointing its own interpreters after another deaf lawyer asked for two sign language experts – one for lawyers and the other for the judges.

The court also asked the Association of Sign Language Interpreters India (ASLI) to draw up protocols for the interpreters.

This was done to make it easy for the lawyers and judges to follow the proceedings, Renuka Rameshan, president of ASLI, told the BBC.

Ms Ain said that experts are also looking to create a legal thesaurus in Indian sign language that would help the deaf lawyers and litigants.

Mr Roychowdhury, the interpreter, said the court’s decision could also mean that “the deaf will realise that they also have an equal right under the law”.

“As per the 2011 Census, there were 18m deaf people or people hard of hearing in India. It is good to have the spotlight on sign language to ensure deaf people get their right to accessibility,” Mr Roychowdhury said.

He added that a demand for more interpreters in courts will open up employment opportunities for them. “There are approximately 400-500 certified interpreters [in the country] but in reality only 40-50 are skilled, qualified and doing ethical work,” Mr Roychowdhury said.

Ranjini Ramanujam, who is deaf by birth and works at an IT company, called the court’s move “a blessing” and “a barrier remover”. A former badminton player, Ms Ramanujam was awarded India’s second-highest sporting honour in 1999.

“The Supreme Court’s move has given a voice to the deaf,” she said. “The court has set an example for other offices to follow as well.”

Source : BBC