Before delving into this topic, take a moment out. And imagine yourself in these situations:
- There’s a sudden power cut in your building or area. You’re fumbling to reach for your cellphone or find a candle.
- You’re on a train or bus. It’s shaking violently and you’re reaching out to hold a bar above for support.
- You’re crossing a road amidst heavy traffic and there are vehicles coming at you from every direction. You need to be self-aware of all these vehicles to move safely.
- You’re eating a piece of bread with some curry. You’re trying to break the bread with one hand but can’t seem to get it right.
When you’re not able to overcome such situations, do you feel ‘disabled’ at the time?
‘Disabled’ isn’t the right word to use though. Because people without a leg can teach themselves to move using other alternatives. People who are visually impaired use the senses of touch and sound to understand objects around them. Those who have hearing or speech disabilities use sign language to communicate.
These people have mastered different ways to get their basic needs met. They utilise as few resources as possible to get their work done and be self-reliable. The more apt term would be ‘persons with disabilities’ because they’re human beings, just a little different.
Persons with disabilities (PWDs) accept the challenges thrown at them, and work through them.
Before we came up with new aids, people who couldn’t walk had to use artificial wooden aids which are not easy to use. Today’s aids are thankfully customised according to different needs, and more lightweight (although, they’re made of plastic which isn’t really environment-friendly). Nonetheless, the efforts taken to get these aids and maintain them is noteworthy.
Yes, persons with disabilities are talented enough to use minimal resources.
But when do they feel ‘handicapped’? When we as a society restrict opportunities for them to grow. It’s just like a power cut that renders our eyes useless.
No, we don’t – you say. Well think about this. Are local buses, malls, theatres, colleges, schools, government buildings or religious centers like temples, mosques, and churches equipped to support PWDs? Do you see toilets for them everywhere you go? Are there ramps to support them? Are there seats designed for them?
Or are they looked at as outcasts?
Truth is, they have the right to lead a happy, undisturbed life. Just as we do.
My experience with ill-equipped schools
As part of my internship with Mobility India in 2007, I had to help a girl with disabilities enroll in a school. Owing to financial limitations, she had dropped out previously and felt the urge to rejoin to educate herself. I tried out five different schools, all government except one. And I was surprised at what happened.
All of these schools refused to admit her because they found her incapable of accessing areas within the school building. I wondered, why was she labeled ‘incapable’? Even when the government has, by law, directed government schools to have infrastructure in place—making it accessible to people with disabilities. Their right to education must be upheld.
During this time, I came across several government schools in Bangalore that weren’t equipped to include persons with disabilities. Their infrastructure lacked essentials such as ramps, toilets and the like. The school was also unable to supply a caretaker to cater to the girl’s needs.
One of the schools I visited had a separate classroom for people with mental disabilities. I witnessed them being physically abused by the teachers. In another school, they refused entry and told us to go away. The teachers, too, were highly condescending. Finally, one private school was ready to admit her but her guardian was unable to afford the money, even as the school provided concessions.
This experience took me back to my own institution—Christ College (now Christ University) —where I was pursuing my master’s degree. Though it was rated as one of the best colleges in Bangalore for PWDs, it didn’t have the infrastructure to support them. It came to light quite embarrassingly when a professor from Delhi attended a conference. She, along with the wheelchair, was dragged down the stairs by four people to get her to the ground floor.
What’s it like today?
Based on Government statistics in 2016:
- Nearly 83% of all elementary schools had barrier-free access to children with disabilities.
- Children with disabilities were provided assistance under the Inclusive Education for Disabled at Secondary Stage (IEDSS).
- Close to 94% Kendriya Vidyalayas had ramps and 97% had special toilets.
All of these numbers show drastic improvement. And yet, on-ground reports speak a very different story.
As you’ll read in this article, Sunil Khandelwal, father to a child with learning disability, faced the same issues as I did. This was 2017 – nearly a decade after my experience in 2007. The problems remain the same even after two acts were passed to reinforce inclusive education.
The Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 allows children with special needs or disabilities to access general education with 25% reservation in public schools. Moreover, the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD), 2016 states that educational institutions must provide reasonable accommodation based on an individual’s requirements and provide necessary support for maximum inclusion. Yet, several children with disabilities are excluded from formal education in India. In fact, according to a UN report in 2019, 75% of children with disabilities didn’t attend any educational institution in our country.
While current laws state the need for inclusive learning, they don’t provide a clear framework for implementation of the system and preparedness among stakeholders. Children, parents and educators don’t have a set of rules and regulations to follow when ensuring their schools are inclusive education-ready.
In addition to this, teachers aren’t equipped for inclusive learning either. They don’t receive special training to teach children with disabilities. B.Ed (the professional course for teachers) has only one module on teaching children with special needs. This creates a lack of awareness and empathy among educators. Some of them can’t distinguish between equality and equity when it comes to dealing with children with disabilities.
While some schools have started training stakeholders with regular workshops, the pandemic has set things back. Regular students nearly couldn’t cope with changes in modes of instruction. But for children with special needs, the situation was worse. And stakeholders now have to figure out new ways to soften the blow.
Not all hope is lost, though. A new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) is being developed by the Government. Under this, the education council is working towards making textbooks with sign language available. There are also some provisions for talking books – for those who are visually impaired. Teacher training is also being contextualised based on real experiences.
This article by The Print suggests further changes that can help make education more inclusive.
- It states the importance of laying down clearly defined regulations by law. The RTE and RPWD acts must have standards and norms for inclusive education, and collectively guide stakeholders to making the system ready for children with disabilities.
- Furthermore, an extensive education policy which states teaching, training, curriculum, assessment methods could be drafted and an agency can monitor its implementation.
- In addition to the above, the government needs to address the issue of implementation. Schools still refuse admission to children with disabilities which clearly go against the law. External moderation could help evaluate the extent to which laws are implemented.
Perhaps, the biggest irony so far has been the active role that the (well-abled) society plays in impairing the productivity and independence of PWDs. The simplest solutions aren’t put in place. What a world of difference it will make if we introspect and understand that PWDs are no different. They’re humans, just like us.
Overall, by making meaningful changes in the infrastructure of our environment, we can make inclusive education a reality.