This IDAP interview features Milan Mittal, currently working as a lawyer with IndusLaw in New Delhi, India. Milan was diagnosed with a degenerative retinal disorder and gradually started losing his eyesight from early teenage, reducing his vision to just light perception by early twenties. However, this never stopped him from pursuing his dreams of carving a successful professional career in the corporate legal world.
In this interview, Milan shares with us how it was very difficult for him to adjust to gradually losing his eyesight, one day at a time, as he wasn’t born sight impaired. He talks about his struggle with depression at about the same time when he had to accept and manage his life without sight. Using assistive technology and meeting with other people going through similar health condition as his, helped him overcome lifestyle changes, inconvenient at the least, in the beginning. In this powerful interview, amongst other things, he also discusses how work places could be better equipped to enable differently-enabled employees on board and having accommodative facilities for them, to encourage more and more persons with disabilities to look for corporate jobs as compared to the tried and tested government jobs, and also touches on the issue of inclusivity at work place. He ends his interview with a lovely piece of advice for other visually impaired students- never blame your disability for your shortfalls and believe that you are your own number one support system.
This interview was conducted by Svetlana Correya on February 6, 2020, in person in New Delhi. It has been transcribed by Gunjan Chellani (who interned at IDIA). The interview has been edited for clarity.
- Good morning, Milan. Thank you so much for taking out the time to meet with us for this interview today. Let me start by asking you about your educational and professional background.
A very good morning to you. My pleasure to be able to talk to IDIA. I am Milan Mittal, of 32 years of age and a resident of New Delhi. I did my schooling from Faith Academy school. Thereafter, I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce followed by a Bachelor’s as well as a Master’s degree in Law from the University of Delhi. I also have a Postgraduate Diploma in Corporate Law and Management from the Indian Law Institute, New Delhi and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Trade and Business Law from the Indian Society of International Law, New Delhi. I did all of my post schooling qualifications after attaining the disability. I am currently associated with a multi-speciality Indian law firm, IndusLaw in their corporate team.
- Could you describe, for our readers, the precise nature of your disability?
I have a retinal disorder called ‘Herido Macular Degeneration’. In this medical condition, the sufferer loses his/her eyesight over a period of time as his/her retina deteriorates. This disorder does not lead to complete blindness, but it reduces vision to a state of light perception, which means you can identify if there is light or darkness in the room but nothing more than that. I was diagnosed with this disorder at the age of 14. Usually, as recorded by doctors, this takes about 20 years or so, but in my case the deterioration was very rapid and it happened within a span of 8 years.
- So you lost your eyesight over a period of time, how difficult was it to accept your health issues during the initial period when you realized that your vision had started to deteriorate?
I believe the question of acceptance comes at a later stage, before that I had to understand what was happening with me. I was diagnosed with this medical condition at an age when most other children start planning their career goals – subjects to opt in high school, focusing on their areas of interest, laying down steps to focus on to shape their career etc. It was at this juncture that I was diagnosed with this health issue.
Let me briefly tell you the background to better understand what I had to go through initially. When I was around 13 years of age, I started getting headaches whenever I was under sunlight. Some of the implications were that I would miss the ball while playing cricket. I also noticed that I was not able to see the blackboard from the last bench in the classroom. So, when this continued for some time my parents made an appointment with an eye specialist and that was the time my condition was diagnosed. The doctor informed my parents that my vision disorder could potentially affect my mental health and could lead to depression as well. Moreover, there was no cure for this health issue worldwide. Naturally, my family was extremely worried. Unfortunately, everybody in my surroundings would think that whatever was happening with me was because, perhaps, I was wearing unsuited spectacles. In fact, at that stage I myself could not comprehend the state of affairs, why routine tasks were now laboured over, why books were coming nearby the eyes, why I wasn’t able to check things from a distance; things which I could very well do with ease earlier. So, it took quite some time just to understand the changes I was going through.
Even though the vision degeneration had set in by the time I was 13, with God’s grace I was able to clear my 12th standard exams with no special needs, i.e. to say without the need to use assistive tools or additional facilities, or to say maybe I just wasn’t aware about them at that time. However, after class 12th, my vision detoriated drastically and I went into depression. This was again largely because I still wasn’t prepared for this and was in some amount of denial. However, acceptance became easier when I came to know about the assistive technologies and met people who were either going through or had experienced the same situation and were using these assistive technologies. I realized that I am not blind but I am in that tunnel that one day I will be blind and I need to start working on myself to find other ways to overcome this as best as I could. With that, I accepted my situation. And now I have been managing it till date at my level best.
- Getting to know about assistive tools that you could use in a way helped you to accept the health condition you were diagnosed with and subsequently to manage your life around it. Could you describe for us the assistive tools that you use?
Let me put it this way, I am not a tech-savvy -person but, due to my medical condition, I adapted it as per my requirement. First of all, the most widely known assistive technology for a person with visual impairment is the screen reading softwares which you can install on your computers and smart phones. For instance, JAWS and NVDA for Windows, Talk Back for Android and Voice Over for Mac and iPhone. Its function is to read the text displayed on the computer or mobile screen. Secondly, there is the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) softwares which helps you to scan a document and convert it into a readable format so that your screen reading software is able to read the document.
In addition to this, there are two mobile applications which I have started using a lot recently. First is ‘Seeing AI’. There are multiple modes in this application. For instance, there is one mode where you can click the photograph of the printed document and the application will read out to you what was written there. The second mode is a beep mode which will help you identify the intensity of light in the surroundings around you. So, if you step out in the sunlight the beep on the application will buzz louder than say if you are in a dark room without any source of light. Similarly, a third mode on this application is the handwriting preview. I would say, to a fair extent, the application converts legible handwritten document to speech through this mode. Another very useful mode is the color preview which identifies the colors in your surroundings for you. The second application is ‘Be My Eyes’. Again, this is a very useful application that allows you to make calls via the internet to a sighted volunteer to help and identify the objects in front of the mobile camera. For instance, there are two bottles with similar design in front of me, say one is a shampoo bottle and the other a conditioner bottle, through this app I can connect with a sighted volunteer and he identifies the bottles and informs me. So, these two mobile applications have given me a sense of independence to a large degree. And, fortunately, they are free of cost.
Assistive technologies are evolving daily, but these technologies like screen reading softwares become useless until the online portals are inaccessible in accordance to these screen reading softwares. Or if I have to put it differently, the online portals have to be more inclusive and be compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) issued by World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It can also be categorised as potential business growth activity as organisations may target persons with disabilities as potential consumers. It is all about thinking to make things accessible.
In layman’s terms, this is for my sighted folks who want to understand what inaccessibility is. I request you to reduce the brightness of your computers and smart phones to zero and then try to read what is written on the screen. I bet many of you won’t be able to read anything. Now let’s increase the brightness, say 10% then 20% and so on,and everything will start becoming visible to you. Similarly, screen-reader softwares are not able to read the screen display properly if the platforms are not at all or slightly compliant with WCAG 2.1, replacing brightness in this case.
- Thank you for explaining so well for our readers the assistive tools that are available for use in various walks of life. Touching upon your career graph, you initially set out to become a Chartered Accountant. However, you switched to studying law towards the end of the chartered accountancy course. Could you tell us what prompted the shift and how would you compare the two courses in terms of accessibility given both are more or less equally sought-after professional courses.
I enrolled for the Chartered Accountancy course in 2008. By that time I had begun using assistive tools like screen reading software. As I said earlier, losing my eyesight at a later stage in life meant that I myself was not aware of a lot of these assistive tools, but I was determined to learn and put to use the assistive tools available at that point in time to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a Chartered Accountant. Unfortunately, by the time I started the course, I realized much to my dismay that there were practical hurdles that posed challenges as far as accessibility of the course itself was concerned. Often it was very difficult to convince the teachers to allow recording of their lectures, scanning at that point was expensive, the course itself is extensively numerical, and finding readers and scribes who could explain lengthy balance sheets was always a challenge. Due to these and many other hurdles, I had to quit the course in my CA Final part.
Honestly, I never wanted to become a lawyer in the first place! However, I was always driven by the desire to acquire a professional degree to grow in life. I figured out that even though I could not fulfil my dream of becoming a Chartered Accounted, I could still follow my dream of mastering the subjects I so loved since my school days – corporate and commercial laws. I found out that an LL.B degree offered the perfect chance to study and specialize in tax and corporate laws, subjects that are quite interrelated to the CA field. Also, I faced far less hurdles while studying law as compared to the accountancy. For instance, the University of Delhi has a separate department called Equal Opportunity Cell (EOC) for disabled students. It aids us in scanning necessary books, in finding a reader and as well as a scribe. Every time I needed to prepare for any exams, I approached the EOC, accessed their scanner and studied on my cellphone or laptop. I studied several theoretical courses in law; hence, a thorough reading of books and material was necessary to develop an understanding of the subject.
- After the completion of your LLB degree, you ventured into the corporate and commercial laws and began your career. What was your experience in the ‘real world’ as they say, when you joined the job market?
In March 2015, I was in my 6th semester of LL.B. By then, I had started searching for jobs with my primary focus being corporate and tax law. Hence, I was approaching corporates and law firms which specialized in the same. I submitted several resumes, contacted numerous people and gave a number of telephonic interviews. Whenever the interviewers realized my visual impairment, it would put them on a spot. They never said no to me, but some stopped communicating with me, and some rejected my applications. I believe, at that time, I was the only visually impaired person who was searching for a job in the legal department of a corporate or a law firm in Delhi NCR.
I wanted to challenge status quo, their misapprehensions and challenge their doubts of a visually-impaired individual. So I finally decided to write about my visual disability at the end of my cover letter and resume. This strategy ensured that the person who assesses my resume takes a note of my achievements first before evaluating me merely on the basis of my impairment. It makes the selector focus on my abilities and achievements rather than my disability. Finally, I got an opportunity to work with a law firm named PPG Legal, in September 2015. It is a small firm in New Delhi. They initially offered me a salary that only covered my conveyance, but as I was determined to prove myself, I joined them without further ado. I knew that though my job responsibilities were not huge, but I would learn and gain knowledge. It would help me in my future pursuits. Then finally, after a long search, Make My Trip gave me an opportunity to join them, in March 2016. The HR and Legal Head who interviewed me were happy and content with my knowledge and skills, primarily to use assistive technology.
- You shared a very good strategy about how you approached your manager to get the kind of work that you were more comfortable with. You had faith in your abilities and were confident that you could perform the work better. Tell us about that strategy, especially in the context of your job profile at MakeMyTrip? Were there accessibility barriers at Make My Trip?
I was hired by the legal team primarily in the contracts department. My main work profile was to review contracts and other documents and draft the same for the organization. I know it is usually quite difficult for a sighted person to understand my method of working, with screen-reading softwares etc., especially when they are dealing with it for the first time. So after my manager briefed me about my job requisites, I requested him to give me some time to settle down. I asked him to provide me contracts to only read and review, in the initial period, so that I get a chance to understand the industry and the ideal structure of the documents. I told my manager that it will give him time to understand my work style, thought process, competence and barriers as well. Initially, it was hard for me to keep up with the work requirements and simultaneously to improve my efficiency and skills. But I kept on exploring way out to all challenges. As working on PDF documents with the help of screen-reading software was practically impossible at that time, I requested my manager to share contracts available in word format. All this made my manager trust my skills and accountability. As a result, my manager gave me the responsibility of drafting contracts and doing research work as well.
Later, after almost ten months, when my manager had a change of job, I was shifted to the litigation department. Again, I approached my new manager with a similar proposal. I went up to him and asked him to provide me only legal notices in the beginning. I said that I will validate them and draft replies for the same. I told him that I will submit the replies to him or someone in the team to review so that they get a clear idea about my work ethics. It would help the team evaluate my trustworthiness, skills and responsibility. There was a positive transformation; two months later, my manager gave me the responsibility of independently handling all legal notices. This was a big step, as legal notices are the base of any complaint and any mistake or misstatement in the reply would hamper our case at a later stage. Still, the manager and the team were able to trust me due to the faith that I instilled during the initial months.
About accessibility barriers, in broad terms, Make My Trip, as a company, had similar accessibility issues as any other corporate or firm may have. Firstly, it was quite impossible for me to navigate alone within the infrastructure of such a big organization and to avoid clashing with humans and walls. Also, as I wear reading glasses and do not appear like a visually impaired person, many times employees that I would meet for the first time missed to realize my visual impairment. Well it is funny but during a few occasions I was asked whether I had a problem with my leg, as I used to take assistance of the housekeeping staff for mobility. Secondly, the internal softwares of the organization were quite inaccessible. But I was lucky as I had a very limited use for those softwares, restricted to fetching the booking details and booking notes uploaded therein, which was manageable somehow. Apart from this,reviewing a document for the first time was incredibly difficult for me. I remember almost nothing was accessible at that time. I had to scroll word by word to review the document in track mode. Now of course, screen reading softwares have been updated and have improved a lot and working on track mode is far better currently.
- Moving on from Make My Trip, you later joined IndusLaw, which is one of the leading law firms in India. Could you throw a light on your experience at IndusLaw? What were the accommodative facilities that are currently provided to you at IndusLaw?
So I joined IndusLaw in their corporate practice department in August 2018. I am the only person with disability in the firm. I knew working with a law firm was going to be very challenging; as it’s a highly pressurizing job. Law firms are very time sensitive and they are under high pressure to stick to the deadlines. It is impossible for people with visual impairment to work on strict timelines. For me, with my dependencies, I was not always able to meet that criteria. For instance, when your client gives you 48 hours’ time to respond, it was difficult even for my unimpaired colleagues to chase and thus was next to impossible for me. But my reporting partner is a very understanding person as he afforded me time to understand things and come up with a work schedule that I am comfortable with.
Apart from reviewing documents and legal notices, I also wanted to work on legal opinions. As a strategy, I requested my seniors that if a client has sent 10 queries, they forward me 2 queries. I would then prepare a process note. This made them to appreciate my comprehension abilities and efficiency at drafting a process note. Hence, I tried to split the queries and later on increased the intake from 2 to 3 and so on and so forth. That is how I came into legal opinion field. I used the same strategy for reviewing and drafting legal documents as well. This also gives an opportunity to your seniors to build confidence in you and obviously it helps you to understand the work culture and responsibilities.
Frankly, there was no additional support as such. Honestly, I never required that also, except my system loaded with requisite assistive tools. Indus Law does not have any internal software except the software where we have to upload our time sheet which is quite accessible. Other than that, the applications we commonly use are MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Web Browsers and Manupatra. In addition to this, it is crucial to keep your hands up to date with document formatting and track mode tools. They are highly challenging and time consuming for a person with visual impairment but super important as they are part and parcel of almost all your tasks. Summarising, to increase efficiency and performance, one should be very skilled with MS-Word for drafting, web browsers for research, Manupatra for case studies, track mode and document formatting techniques. These are the key tools for any young corporate lawyer to excel at. They will help you stand out in your workplace.
My reporting partner and I concluded that I wanted to walk independently around the office on my own. So, IndusLaw gave me the space to move around as they informed all their associates that I was independent enough. You won’t believe that in such a big office where they have a 100 people capacity, I move alone everywhere, from the washroom to even the conference room.
- When you were speaking about the litigation field, you mentioned the accessibility problems which old legal documents posed. So, while working for the litigation department of Make My Trip, how did you actually go and access legal documents which may not be available in accessible formats?
The corporate world is today shifting towards digitization. Everything will be in front of my computer, this was my strategy. Moreover, litigation may have been troublesome for me because it usually involves very old documents which were not available in electronic format. And the time to convert the document into an accessible format will again kill my energy and motivation to a great extent. Though courts are working rapidly to make documents available online, it will be a while before that happens.
As I told you, my focus was more on corporate and tax law so I defined my scope there. I never tried for the litigation because I knew that was not my area of interest. When I mentioned Litigation, I meant core litigation which one does while working with a senior advocate. For instance, I mentioned that I was working on the legal notices served by the customers to the company. Those were in physical formats which you can easily scan. You can obviously refer to the latest cases and validate them based upon e-mail chains and voice recordings available and progress logs, etc. This is different from when one works under a senior advocate.
I should mention though that you understand the dynamics and challenges of a job when you undertake it. First, mostly corporates and firms prefer scanning documents in image format, i.e. PNG and JPEG files, and further converting them into readable format using OCR, hampers their accuracy. They become quite inaccessible with screen reading softwares. So, I have to scan the document once again in PDF file, to make it accessible. But this method becomes less productive if original document is not available on hand. In such a case, I have to print the image file of a document and scan them. This helps to improve its accuracy to an extent but not completely. Then comes formatting of a document which I believe is most troublesome for a person with visual impairment. It takes much longer to scroll a document line by line and word by word and to correct the formatting associated with it. It destroys the efficiency. Like it or not, you are judged based upon how well you perform on all those parameters. And don’t forget, other people read documents by seeing it so it becomes important. I do not like depending on other people until its unavoidable. And that’s when I enlist the help of my colleagues, to look at the document and highlight the formatting issues.
- Milan, you have been insisting that persons with disability should also explore the corporate sector and not merely settle into government jobs. What makes you to think so?
The main reason a person studies is to earn and build a career. In India, the population of persons with visual disability is in crores. Thus, it is not possible for everyone with an impairment to be engaged with the government. The truth is that the government cannot accommodate each and every person with disabilities. You need to explore more opportunities and challenge yourself. For instance, I have worked for a corporate and I am working for a law firm where I faced huge challenges. With corporates’ orientation towards ‘diversity and inclusion’, many private organizations are endeavouring to employ persons with disabilities and take a chance on them, which is encouraging.
People feel that government jobs are secure because nobody fires you. In reality, if you check online, there are numerous pending legal cases where the people are not getting promoted, or getting good work and instances where they are discriminated against or harassed.
I feel you have the main responsibility to change people’s opinion and understanding about private organizations. They feel that corporates will fire you if you don’t perform. As I mentioned earlier if you follow the same strategy from the start, people will grow to respect you. Make them think “that’s incredible, how did he do that”. One has to improve consistently in their performance and pursue what they want to be.
- In your experience, what would you say are the inclusion barriers at a private organization? What are your inputs on barriers of communication with colleagues?
I believe it is important to understand the working style of a disabled person and facilitate their participation in the organisation. It involves revision and implementation of policies and practices. But it is not so easy for unimpaired counterparts to understand all this with ease and hence they should also be orientated and educated on adapting to a new work culture. Further, it is our responsibility to bring to notice any issues we face and find out solutions for our troubles.
Interacting with colleagues in a corporate and a law firm is quite similar. I can understand what goes through the mind of my new team and manager, when they meet me for the first time – How do I interact with this person? What can he do in the office? Should I guide him the chair? Should I restrict myself from using words such as see? etc. But I treat myself as any other person. Sometimes I ask for help, sometimes I don’t. Their interaction over a period of time transforms my image from “a blind who happens to be a lawyer” to “a lawyer who happens to be blind” and that’s why I may need support for doing some extra things. For instance, my colleagues help me in understanding screenshots. It slowly becomes a part of our relationship and they become comfortable and make themselves available every time I seek them out.
In addition to above, I want to stress on the importance of accurate instructions to a differently-abled person. At IndusLaw, I realized the importance of appropriate instructions for a person with visual impairment when I worked with one of their partner, who is a dual qualified lawyer, half Indian half English. His instructions were so awesome detailed and specific that I didn’t find myself grappling with the information gaps. I already knew the path to tread to accomplish the task, thus increasing productivity and efficiency. However, as most people hesitate to converse with visually-impaired employees, they fail at times to convey accurate instructions thus complicating things for them.
Not all people sitting around you are ignoring you or not ready to accept you. People have their own way of thinking, some people may care but may not know how to approach you, this is when you need to have that confidence that yes, this is the way you can approach me. Some people may not be interested to talk to you in person, that’s ok as we go our own jobs to do. This is something you need to understand. Likewise, if you share a healthy relationship with your employer, probably they would go way beyond what law mandates to support you.
- As someone who developed disability at a later stage of life, what would you advise to others who are experiencing something similar. Based on your experience, is there any advice you want to give to young students or professionals.
During my school days, I felt confused and lost. I could not understand my surroundings, as I was not aware about what was happening with me. When I cleared my 12th standard, I used to stay at home and I didn’t step outside my house for months. My friends use to bully me because of my visual impairment. At that time, I was almost suicidal then. At that stage, I would urge everyone to never lose the hope of life. Then, I never thought I would graduate and right now, my qualifications and experience is as they say ‘history’ and exemplary. So, hope is everything and faith in yourself is the most important thing. When I was diagnosed with HMD, I felt miserable; After completing 12th, I felt helpless and depressed; I did graduation with a lot of difficulties; I faced several hardships while pursuing Chartered Accountancy and had to drop out of the course in finals; I finally pursued a less desirable stream, my job search was tedious. The road was long and hard but I made it. I hope you can understand my agony. Sounds cliché but keep trying, where one door closes, a window opens. Keep trying and planning, and keep spreading awareness and never restrain yourself. Most importantly, never lose faith in yourself.
For a young professional it is very important you understand your career objective and develop the skills to achieve it. Working in an organisation for, say, at least two to three years for an understanding of the industry requirements and your potential is very important. Accordingly, you may give direction to your career. Build strong relationship with your seniors and colleagues and never shy away from seeking guidance. Personally, I did not have any mentor who guided me and but I still learnt.
- In the end, would you mind telling us about your support system? Who or what from do you gather strength and courage to keep going?
My basic support system was myself because somewhere deep inside the power in me helped me out in every scenario. With time I realized never use visual impairment as a reason for failures. Negative thoughts will only depress you further and nobody will benefit from it. Nobody knows you better than yourself. Stop linking everything with your disability. Always keep trying hard because you are not a failure. Frankly, my next big challenge is to become an expert in any segment of corporate law. I cannot compete with my other colleagues but I am my own competition and I am striving to be a better me.
My family has been my biggest backbone. They were always there irrespective of the circumstances, whether I was depressed or shouting. My father, mother, brother and my wife listen to me, understand me and support me as best as they can. More importantly, they always focus on my strengths and potential something that I fail to do sometimes. Another support system is, obviously, the technology. In my case, I also received a lot of support from strangers, sometimes even passersby. The person who forwarded my resume to Make my Trip again was a job consultant, the person who sent my resume to IndusLaw was only an acquaintance. That’s why I urge everyone to keep spreading awareness and keep sharing your experience. Always be positive, that is a trait which people recognize and appreciate.
The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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