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Seminar promotes inclusive education

DNIS News Network - A seminar organised by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) on 'Mainstreaming education for disabled students' was held on September 17 in New Delhi.

A recently released country-wide survey on the enrolment of disabled children in India's educational institutions revealed that only a fraction of them obtain admission, impelling rights activists to present a draft plan for including them in the educational mainstream and curbing discrimination.

Stressing the importance of the issue, Javed Abidi, Executive Director, NCPEDP, said: "We have to educate our disabled children!"

The participants, including disability rights activists, educationists and government functionaries, called for a paradigm shift in priorities. The speakers largely agreed that a major step forward would be made if special education was be shifted from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to the Human Resource Development ministry.

The survey results show India's education system currently has no place for children with disabilities. The 119 universities that responded to the survey reported the enrolment of a mere 1635 disabled students between them. Several prestigious universities including Delhi University and premier medical college, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, failed even to respond. And as far as colleges were concerned, only 679 students were admitted to the 96 colleges from across India, which took the time to participate in the survey.

Schools displayed an even greater bias against disabled students. Only 382 children with disabilities were enrolled in the 89 schools that responded. Of these 89 respondent schools, 18 said the existence of "special schools" meant they did not feel obliged to admit children with disabilities.

Armed with such shocking statistics, the seminar was used to launch a draft blueprint for inclusive education. This includes the establishment of high-powered committees under the Central Advisory Board of Education in India (CABE), the inclusion of disability training in the curriculum of regular school teachers, increased and equal availability of Braille and talking books (audio-based learning material) and a barrier-free environment for easy accessibility.

Significantly, very few schools in India currently provide such facilities. One of the exceptions is St. Mary's Convent School in New Delhi. The school's principal, Ms Annie Koshi told the seminar delegates that, just as most Indian schools have introduced Information Technology (IT) in the curriculum, they could also provide disabled-friendly furniture and other facilities such as lifts and grab rails to accommodate such students.

Other speakers called for policy level changes, such as making educational institutions responsible through the establishment of monitoring mechanisms.

India's 22 million disabled people continue to face neglect, despite the existence of a slew of legal provisions to protect their rights, both at the national and international levels. Under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, all Indian citizens are entitled to equal rights and protection of laws. Interestingly, the Constitution also permits positive discrimination for disabled people. This is of crucial importance to the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

The Act holds the State responsible for the education of disabled persons till the age of 18, and stipulates a 3 per cent reservation for them in all government educational institutions.

The Government of India's ongoing 'Education For All' movement also pledges equal education opportunities for all children, including the disabled, even though it is not enforced. As the NCPEDP survey shows, the ground reality remains dismal.

Samuel Mani, who has cerebral palsy, is employed in the IT sector. He spoke passionately of his struggle to establish himself as a schoolchild. He was moved to a normal school from a special one, due to the feeling of isolation it engendered. Although he sometimes found the transition difficult, he values the experience it gave him: "Normal schools and colleges teach you about normal lives -- a life which we all have to live. The main thing is to be seen by other people."

Apart from the lack of education at the elementary level, disabled people are later barred from obtaining higher education as well. Educationist S.C. Handa, who uses technology to help the hearing impaired, told the delegates: "There are a lot of seats available, but we can't educate the disabled first of all at the primary and secondary level."

While the speakers did not entirely discount the need for special schools, they stressed the need to mainstream disabled children and youth in normal ones.

Special schools are viewed as artificial environments, harming both disabled and normal children, due to the lack of exposure to each other. Poonam Natarajan, a teacher from Chennai, spoke of the lack of standardised curriculums in special schools. She said this is a major reason why so many students with disabilities leave school without being equipped for future careers.

Ashish Kumar, director of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, said some ministries had schemes to provide grants to the disabled, although he admitted many of these fail to see the light of day thanks to bureaucracy or sheer ignorance about their existence.

However, there were some words of encouragement from the Indian government: Rajashekharan Pillai, Vice Chairman of the University Grants Commission, India's apex body governing higher education, assured those assembled that schemes to make colleges disabled-friendly were in the pipeline. We wait with bated breath to see what will be done.