“Who says persons with disabilities cannot dream? I know I can do it. I’m willing to study and I’m positive that the apex court will see this” – these are the words of Albin Joseph, on the day that he moved the Supreme Court in an uphill battle to realise his dream of becoming a doctor.
Since June 2019, when the NEET ranks were announced by the Medical Council of India, the 18-year-old has been a victim of institutional bias that candidates with disabilities are oftentimes subjected to.
“Albin has spina bifida, a pre-birth defect which has left him immobile in his lower body,” his sister Anita tells TNM.
Over the last two months, both the state government as well as the Kerala High Court deemed the 18-year-old, who secured rank 1294 in NEET under the persons with disabilities (PWD) quota, ‘medically unfit to pursue’ a degree in MBBS – effectively putting an end to his childhood dream.
However, Albin, whose story was first reported on Manorama news, is not ready to silently accept this fate and instead moved the Supreme Court to challenge the Kerala HC verdict.
“Becoming a doctor has been my dream since I was a child. When I underwent surgeries for my spine, most of the surgeons would pat me and tell me I should grow up and become a doctor. That was the moment I realised that a doctor was what I would become,” he tells TNM.
Spina bifida, a birth defect which occurs when the spine and the spinal cord do not form properly, is termed a ‘neural tube’ defect. The neural tube in the embryo is what grows into the baby’s brain and spinal cord. This happens quite early in pregnancy, usually within the first 28 days of conception. For babies with spina bifida, a section of the neural tube fails to develop properly, which results in an improperly formed spinal cord and bones.
Albin lives with open spina bifida (or myelomeningocele), a severe variant of the defect where the spinal canal in the lower or middle back is open along several vertebrae. The membranes and nerves in this opening push and stick out, forming a bulge in the person’s back.
“He has not had it easy. Within the first year of his birth, he underwent 9 surgeries for his back. He currently moves around in a motorised wheelchair as he lacks motor skills in his lower body (including bladder and bowel control). But he is not deteriorating. In fact, his condition is improving. He does everything on his own and does not need any of us,” Anita adds.
Born to Maradi natives Shaji Joseph and Jisha Shaji, Albin lives with his family, including an older sister and a younger one. The family is also entirely supportive of Albin’s dreams of becoming a doctor.
State government plays dampener
June 5, 2019 was a day of jubilation for Albin’s parents thinking their son’s dream will finally come to fruition when he scored a good rank in the NEET entrance.
The hope and excitement, however, was short-lived.
Albin was declared ineligible by a medical team constituted by the Commissioner of Entrance Examination (CEE), which assessed all medical candidates with disabilities and approved or rejected their application.
“The team consisting of specialists from each field marked Albin at 85% disability. This, when the disability certificate issued by the district medical authority had marked him at 60%,” Anita says.
The latest guidelines of the Medical Council (appendix H1) states that any candidate for a graduate medical course with a disability level of above 80% is ineligible to pursue the degree. With Albin’s score at 85, the CEE automatically struck down his candidacy.
To fight this order, Albin took the help of Mathew Kuzhalnadan, a Supreme Court lawyer, to file a writ petition in the Kerala High Court. The court ordered the CEE to set aside a seat for Albin in the Kottayam Medical College Hospital. It also set up another medical panel to assess Albin’s disability and issue a report.
“This panel consisted of heads of department (HoDs) from the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital. When we went there for the assessment, two of the panellists were downright rude to us. They kept saying such children should not even consider medicine as they won’t be able to complete the course. It was a total waste of time, they said,” Anita recalls. The family, which did not take action against the ableist remarks, plan to meet the disability commissioner regarding the same.
The High Court constituted medical panel too let Albin down, rating him at 80% disability with the assistance of a motorised wheelchair. Three of the panellists – the physician, neuro suregeon and the orthopaedic surgeon – left comments stating that Albin was unsuitable to pursue medicine.
According to the judgement of the High Court on the writ petition, “The physical medicine rehabilitation expert, however, opined that the student will not be able to give basic lifesaving procedures such as Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and other procedures mentioned in the MBBS curriculum.”
The neurosurgeon as well as the orthopaedic professor too noted that the student would be unsuitable to pursue the course.
“The report was sent to the CEE, which yet again declared that Albin was not a suitable candidate to pursue medicine. As per the rules in Kerala, the CEE too has the authority to decide on the eligibility or lack thereof of a student wishing to pursue a graduate degree in MBBS or other courses. The Kerala High Court acknowledged this and dismissed the petition,” Mathew adds.
Case in apex court
On Wednesday, the case reached the Supreme Court with Mathew filing a special leave petition in the top court.
“There was a similar case of a student with disability in Kerala who moved the Supreme Court to acquire a medical seat in the state. This happened in 2018 and then the MCI rule, which until then had the disability cut-off at 70%, was revised. The new rules issued in 2019 extended the cut-off to 80%. With this, the student was permitted to pursue medicine and is currently in his second year. We feel even Albin will get justice from the Supreme Court. Nobody has said that he is ineligible for medicine,” Mathew says to TNM.
With classes beginning in September, Albin is hopeful that he will be able to receive a just verdict from the Supreme Court soon and commence classes right when they begin.
“My disability is not a weakness. I do everything on my own. I am positive that I can do this too. So why can’t they give me chance?” he asks.