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Rethinking Education for Children With Disabilities

The Right To Education (RTE) Act falls short in providing for children with disabilities. Policy protection has been limited to the construction of ramps. It does not take into account the various complications that come along with disabilities or the role of different stakeholders in the process.

The definition of disability has been contested, debated and redefined numerous times. Some theories have explained disability as a human condition, others as a social category, and still others as a concept.

The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) is the foremost global forum for deliberating upon the inclusion of persons with disabilities in different areas of social and economic functioning. It raises awareness among policymakers on the need to change policy frameworks to ensure benefits for all. The Convention focuses on the barriers to access for persons with disabilities to healthcare, education, employment opportunities and political activities.

In line with this vision, the UNCRPD emphasises upon ‘inclusive education’ as the need of the hour. It argues for a non-discriminatory education system where no child – with or without a disability – is excluded, with equal opportunity provided to each child to fulfil their potential. Inclusive education is the first step to removing inequality. As the great American educator Horace Mann said, “Education … is the great equaliser of the conditions of men.”

What Inclusive Education Means

According to UNICEF, inclusive education is aimed at transforming the whole education system. Inclusive education does not expect the disabled person to adapt themselves to existing norms; instead, it aims to transform and restructure the education system. This transformation is not just in the policy structure but also the curriculum, teaching techniques, and infrastructure of the institute.

This approach is in contrast to the earlier approaches of ‘segregation’ and ‘integration’. In the practice of ‘segregation’, disabled persons are classified according to their impairment and then allocated to a specialised institution which can cater to their needs. But while the person is given special care and guidance, they are still expected to adapt and function as per societal norms.

In the ‘integration’ approach, on the other hand, it is entirely the responsibility of the disabled person to adjust to the existing system and integrate themselves into it. Here, adjustment within society is the key idea.

In contrast to these approaches, inclusion is a step forward to bring more effective and holistic change across the entire education system.

Indian Laws on Disability

Indian policies on disability can be traced back to the Mental Health Act 1987. In the last three-and-a-half decades, this policy framework has developed and grown in terms of how it views persons with disabilities. Succeeding policies have also broadened their scope; they now recognise 21 disabilities as opposed to just seven in the beginning. Provisions have also been included to ensure accessibility and availability.

The policies now recognise physical disabilities, such as locomotor and auditory impairments, as well as developmental ones like autism and dyslexia. In addition, intellectual disabilities have also been recognised. By expanding their scope, the policies now help provide benefits to the disabled as well as raise greater awareness.

At present, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) Act 2016 is the most viable and multifaceted policy document on disabilities – and it is consistent with the ideals of the UNCRPD. The RPWD Act is a crucial policy document as it is the only document which gives a holistic definition of inclusive education in India: “A system of education wherein students with and without disability learn together and the system of teaching and learning is suitably adapted to meet the learning needs of different types of students with disabilities.”

But to translate this policy into action on the ground, it needs to be in coherence with the policy framework on education.

In the past two decades, education has been defined in India by policies like the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyaan and the Right To Education (RTE) Act 2012. The former ensures quality primary and secondary education to all – including a reduction in disparities across gender, disabilities and other vulnerabilities. And the RTE has been a game-changer for Indian education by making it a Fundamental Right under Article 21(a) of the Indian Constitution. Despite this, there have been numerous questions over how inclusive the RTE Act is – and whether it brings better outcomes for children with disabilities.

Is the Right To Education Act Inclusive?

The primary idea of the RTE Act has been to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14. Under this Act, education has been regarded a fundamental human right for every child.

However, when the Act is seen from the viewpoint of children with disabilities, there are certain lacunae which deserve attention. The Act has undergone several amendments but has been unable to bring about certain important changes in its structure.

Firstly, the Act leaves out children under the age of six, due to which some children with disabilities miss out. In the case of children with disabilities, early intervention and diagnosis  is an integral step towards inclusion in the future years. ‘Diagnosis’ implies early identification of the needs of the child by a registered professional. This will make the parents and educators sensitive to the unique needs of the child and can provide early access for the child to special education, occupation therapy and other required support.

Secondly, the Act does not include children with disabilities in its list of disadvantaged groups (Section 2(e) of the Act). It only covers the seven disabilities which are listed in the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995. This is a setback, as a large portion of children with disabilities are not given due attention and suffer high drop-out rates at all levels of schooling.

Lastly, the scope of policy protection has been limited to the construction of ramps. The law fails to address the need for increasing awareness and sensitivity among educators and parents. Educators must become better aware about special teaching methods, individualised curriculum programs and the creation of a healthy environment for the children. Parents are currently unaware of the provisions available for children with disabilities – and delayed diagnosis causes delay in intervention, which creates challenges for the child and the parents.

The policy does not take into account the various complications that come along with disabilities – and it ignores the role of different stakeholders in the process. For instance, to ensure inclusivity for a person with locomotor disability, a ramp is not the only necessity; they also need accessible washrooms and acceptance within the classroom and among peers. For a child with special needs, inclusivity is not limited to access to the classroom, but also requires efforts from the educator to make learning an engaging experience.

Areas of Focus

Inclusive education cannot be brought about only by amending the policy structure and ensuring physical accessibility. It is vital to focus on three facets of accessibility: emotional, physical and economic.

Emotional accessibility means sensitising educators, parents and peers. If the educator, parents or the peers are not sensitised, it can impact the child’s self-esteem and willingness to learn. Physical accessibility is already covered in India’s policies. However, it needs to be made more extensive by providing the child freedom to engage in every activity – from cultural to leisurely. Economic accessibility refers to the barriers imposed by high schooling fees.

Inclusive education cannot become a reality only through policy. Change must come from within us as a society. Even if policies provide greater access to education for children with disabilities, the cause will not be served if the child is unable to get necessary support from educators and peers. Thus, awareness and sensitisation is an important step towards acceptability and inclusivity.