Do Our Education Laws Cater to the Needs of Children With Disabilities?

A decade after India’s Right to Education Act made free and compulsory education a fundamental right, the government has drafted a New Education Policy. Although India has made incredible strides in primary school enrolment, the new policy reforms must recognise the crisis of quality and equity in Indian education.

Year after year, the Annual Status of Education Report reminds us that only 50% of students in grade 5 acquire grade-level proficiency. Children with marginalised identities are least likely to be in school and most likely to drop out. When in school, they are excluded and discriminated against. This is especially true for children with disabilities.

When I met Kamal, a 16-year-old Class 8 student, he was roaming around the school, disinterested and disengaged. Kamal has a hearing and speech impairment. He is enrolled in a government school in rural Madhya Pradesh. Under India’s flagship education mission, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the block resource person for children with disabilities (CWSN BRP) ensured that Kamal was enrolled in school and had a bank account for his social welfare schemes. His parents, daily wage agricultural labourers, didn’t know such an account existed. His teachers and principal don’t seem to have high hopes for his education. Even though he’s been promoted to the eighth grade, there are no modified assessments or curricula to assess Kamal’s educational progress.

His teacher attended a five-day training where they taught him sign language. That was years ago, he doesn’t remember any of the signs, let alone how to teach in an inclusive classroom using sign language. Besides, he has more students in his classroom than he can handle.

The CWSN BRP is under immense pressure. She does the job of three resource persons and is responsible for over 200 schools. She is too swamped to make regular visits to support Kamal or Kamal’s teacher. Even if she could, she specialises in visual impairments, not hearing impairments. She has never learned sign language.

As a researcher, I collected many such stories from field visits to government schools, special schools, government offices, and homes in Assam, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Maharashtra for a study conducted with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Combining field observation and interviews with intensive legal research, the report highlights the inconsistencies within the legal framework and the contradiction between the aspirations of the law and the realities on the ground for children with disabilities.

The two key laws and related ministries are contradictory around pathways to educate children with disabilities. The Right to Education Act does not guarantee inclusive education and supports home-based education for children with disabilities. On the other hand, the 2016 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD) defines inclusive education as children with and without disabilities studying in the same environment.

Also read: Coronavirus: Why Persons With Disability Face a Crisis Within a Crisis

Yet, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which is responsible for implementing the RPwD, continues to uphold and fund special schools. Special schools serve to support disabled children and their families but end up segregating disabled children from their non-disabled peers. As pointed out by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment Of Disabled People (NCPEDP), the suggestions in the draft New Education Policy are a step in the wrong direction. For example, the proposal to create Special Education Zones in regions with a higher concentration of marginalised and disadvantaged groups is antithetical to the idea of inclusion.

Kamal is one of over six million children with disabilities who have been brought into mainstream classrooms without the resources required to support their education. This is a gross injustice. Special education zones are a band-aid solution to this problem. There is little government support or regulation around special schools – there are no national curricular standards and no data on student outcomes. Many special schools follow the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) curriculum, which has been criticised by several scholars for creating a parallel system that offers subpar education. From the very start, the system guarantees inequitable outcomes for children with disabilities.

We have promised Kamal free and compulsory education – it is now time for quality, equity, and inclusion. The laws and policies designed to protect the educational rights of children with disabilities support their exclusion in insidious ways. The often-cited excuse that the “system is not ready” for inclusion is not acceptable if India wants to uphold its constitutional values of equality and social justice.

Delivering equitable, quality, inclusive education requires careful planning, structural reforms, and prudent financial allocations. The solution is not to create more parallel structures to deal with the exclusionary core. It is to change the core that is compromising the future of the children in India.

How long will we claim that the system is not ready to cater to disabled children? When will it be ready? When will we begin to make it ready?

Tanushree Sarkar is a doctoral student in the Community Research and Action program at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University and was an Associate Fellow for Inclusive Education at the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy in 2019. She has a Master’s degree in Social and Cultural Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research examines the relationship between education policy and teacher practices for inclusive education in India.

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