"if I can do it, they can also do it."
Sarah Sunny became India’s first deaf lawyer to argue in the country’s Supreme Court.
The 27-year-old appeared before Chief Justice DY Chandrachud in September 2023 after the court allowed a sign language interpreter to assist her with the arguments.
On October 6, the court also appointed its own interpreter for Sarah, the first in the court’s history, so that “she could understand what was going on” during the proceedings.
Justice Chandrachud said: “In fact, we are thinking that for the constitution bench hearings we will have an interpreter so that everyone can follow the proceedings.”
According to observers, Sarah’s presence in the Supreme Court would help make the Indian legal system more inclusive and accommodative to the deaf community’s needs.
Senior lawyer Menaka Guruswamy called it a “truly historic and momentous” occasion.
Lawyer Sanchita Ain, who works with Sarah, said her work would have positive, long-term implications.
Ms Ain said: “She has broken many stereotypes, this will encourage more deaf students to study law and make the legal system accessible to the deaf.”
A resident of Bengaluru, Sarah Sunny has been practising law for two years.
In Bengaluru’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.
As a result, Sarah submitted her arguments in writing.
Saurav Roychowdhury, who interpreted for Sarah when she first appeared before the Supreme Court, has not studied law but has experience 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 currently, no Indian sign language interpreter is trained in legal terminology.
Sarah said: “I wanted to show those who are cannot hear that if I can do it, they can also do it.”
Her twin sister Maria Sunny and her brother Pratik Kuruvilla are also deaf.
Pratik is a software engineer in the US and now teaches at a school for the deaf in Texas, while 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, Sarah studied by lip reading and with the help of her friends.
She said: “There were also others who made fun of me but I always argued with them.”
Sarah went on to study law at St Joseph’s College.
While her mother could not help her with her law course, Sarah got support from a friend and her siblings.
In 2021, she took the bar exam to enrol as an advocate and began practising law.
Sarah 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”.
She added: “That’s what gave me the confidence to follow my dreams.”
In India, deaf people are often unable to pursue a law career because of stigma and the lack of interpreters in courts.
On April 17, the Delhi High Court set a precedent when it allowed deaf lawyer Saudamini Pethe to appear in a case. Like Sarah, she too had to bring an interpreter.
In September, the high court said it would start appointing its own interpreters after another deaf lawyer requested 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.
Renuka Rameshan, president of ASLI, said this was done to make it easy for the lawyers and judges to follow the proceedings.
Ms Ain said experts are also looking to create a legal thesaurus in Indian sign language that would help deaf lawyers and litigants.
Interpreter Mr Roychowdhury said the court’s decision could also mean that “the deaf will realise that they also have an equal right under the law”.
He said: “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.”
He added that a demand for more interpreters in courts will increase employment opportunities for them.
Mr Roychowdhury said: “There are approximately 400-500 certified interpreters [in the country] but in reality, only 40-50 are skilled, qualified and doing ethical work.”