The proposed amendment to the Right to Education Act is designed to enable inclusive education and bring students with disabilities into the regular classrooms. But will it succeed where other similar efforts have remained mere pledges on paper?
Jasleen Kaur | June 24, 2016
When nine-month-old Aditi was detected with hemiplegia, her parents were heartbroken – hemiplegia, paralysis of one side of the body, had affected their daughter’s left arm and leg. Their grief turned to apprehension when the family had to shift from the UK, where Aditi was born, to India. The parents, both bureaucrats, realised that their daughter would find it difficult to get a regular schooling back home.
“In the UK, every school admits a child with disability. Not so in India,” says her mother Kajal Singh, “We wanted mainstream school education for our daughter but we knew we would not have much choice.” The Singhs opted for Chennai because of its better facilities and enrolled Aditi, first in the Montessori school and, four years later, in Lady Andal School which had a special learning centre as well. However, a year later, the family had to move to Delhi. After a nerve-racking search, the parents zeroed in on the Shri Ram School, which is among the very few schools in the national capital region that practise inclusive education. It has a special education need centre where Aditi was admitted before the school shifted her to the regular classroom.
Aditi has difficulty in learning, writing and retention. Her school allows her to mark the right answer among the options available while other children in her class are required to write detailed answers in the examination. The Singhs have reason to feel they are fortunate in having found the right school for their daughter. “In Delhi, which has almost two lakh children suffering from some kind of disability, less than 20,000 get to go to school,” says Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer and education activist who is handling more than 300 cases of disabled children being refused admission on grounds of disability, “As a society, we are sympathetic towards the disabled. We think we should care for them and protect them, but we are yet to evolve the concept of educating them.” Delhi, however, still compares favourably with the rest of the country. According to a study by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, less than two percent of the children with various disabilities across the country have access to any form of education.
Most schools simply do not have the facilities required to provide education to children with disabilities, Agarwal says. Shyama Chona, former principal of Delhi Public School, RK Puram, who runs a school for children with special needs, agrees, “Even after the Right to Education (RTE) Act, mainstream private schools just do not accept these children.”
Government-run schools are no better than private schools. Even if they do not refuse admission, they lack the resources to provide education. Delhi has had just 50 resource teachers appointed on contractual basis under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan across 3,000 government-run schools. For example, there are just two special educators for the 11 primary schools run by the municipal corporation in north Delhi’s Jahangir Puri, while there is none for the four senior secondary Delhi government-run schools in the area. In February, the government finally appointed 306 more resource teachers, after a third door-to-door survey to ascertain the number of children with special needs.
The Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992 stipulates that children with disabilities have the right to be taught by a qualified teacher, but the schools still don’t have the required human resources. A centrally-sponsored scheme of integrated education for the disabled children (IEDC) has also been in place for years and was revised in 1992. As per this scheme, students are entitled to facilities including expenses on books and stationery, uniforms, transport allowance and hostel accommodation. The scheme also supports the appointment of special teachers, provision for resource rooms and removal of architectural barriers in schools. The central government claims that this scheme benefits two lakh children in 90,000 schools across the country.
Yet, many students continue to be denied admission. Annie Koshi, principal of Delhi’s St Mary’s School, which practises inclusive education, says there are more intractable issues at play. “For many principals, the logistics of setting up inclusive classrooms remain the biggest obstacle,” she says, “Some believe this will harm their image. They feel if they admit a child with disability, parents of other children will stay away.”
Pooja Thakur, a special educator and deputy principal at Shri Ram School, says the lack of awareness is as much to blame as the paucity of resources. “It is understandable that every school cannot afford to appoint a separate special educator or set up a lab. But then regular teachers can be trained,” she says, and adds that inclusion should figure as an essential element in the Bachelor of Education (BEd), the basic degree required for teaching. If that happens, the schools will not have to depend entirely on the teachers equipped with a specialised BEd focused on teaching the disabled.
Promises on paper
- There has been no dearth of schemes, programmes and policies designed to make our education system more inclusive. Here are the most important ones:
- The Integrated Education for Disabled Children Scheme, launched in 1974, to admit children with disabilities in regular schools;
- The District Primary Education Programme, 1985, which acknowledges the fact that universalisation of education is possible only if it includes children with disabilities;
- The National Policy on Education, 1986, which promotes the integration of children with mild disabilities into the mainstream;
- The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which recommends changes in assessment and curriculum, and removing architectural barriers, to support inclusion. It also recommends providing free books and uniform for children with disabilities;
- The National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Retardation and Multiple Disability, 1999, which recommends promotion of inclusive education;
- The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, 2000, which pledges to “ensure that every child with special needs, irrespective of the kind, category and degree of disability, is provided education in an appropriate environment”.
Proposed amendments to the RTE Act
- To include children with disabilities in the definition of “child belonging to disadvantaged group” to ensure that their specific needs are given priority in the elementary education system and enable them to participate as full and equal members of the community.
- Children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism and multiple disabilities to be explicitly covered under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.
Even the few schools that admit children with special needs don’t shy away from making money off the disabled. Kajal Singh, whose daughter goes to the Shri Ram School in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, says Rs 2,000 extra per quarter is a lot more affordable than what several other private schools charge. She says many schools charge students with disabilities around Rs 15,000 extra per quarter. Lawyer-activist Ashok Agarwal fumes, “If we are talking about equality we mean that those from the disadvantageous group, whatever their hindrance is, should get support so that they come at par with others. But if you charge them more for this you are creating extra burden on them. Not all parents can afford the extra fees.”
The right to education was expected to pave the way for greater opportunities for children with special needs but experts soon pointed out a number of loopholes. The Act failed to clearly define “children suffering from disability”. Similarly, “child belonging to disadvantaged group” does not specifically include a child with disability. Javed Abidi, an activist fighting for the rights of the disabled, who led the advocacy campaign for amending the legislation says, “The loopholes were noticed even when the Act was being drafted, but the ministry wanted to introduce it in a hurry.” For instance, activists had objected to the fact that wherever the Act mentions “a child suffering from disability” it refers to Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection and Full Participation) Act, 1995 which does not cover children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism and multiple disabilities.
The activists, therefore, proposed that the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999, which covers all the disabilities, should be referred to in the RTE Amendment Act, which is expected to be introduced in the budget session of parliament. “We are not asking for a miracle,” says Abidi, “What we are asking for is the political will required to change the situation.”
Abidi hits out at the crux of the issue because a scheme was launched way back in 1974 to facilitate admission of children with disabilities in regular schools (see box). More than two decades later, the objective remains unfulfilled. Educationists feel amending the right to education law, too, won’t result in automatic compliance. “Legislation alone cannot solve everything,” says Annie Koshi, “There should be an authority to monitor implementation and to take action against those not following the law.”
At a time when inclusive growth is touted as the catch-all mantra for governance, it is important to integrate the disabled into our mainstream education system and society. As special educator Pooja Thakur points out, “If children study in an inclusive environment they will grow up more comfortable with differently-abled people and actually learn to look beyond disability.”
(This story appears in the March 16-31, 2011 issue)
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