With education, the disabled can contribute to the growth and wealth of our nation
In America, 12 per cent of the population is counted as disabled, the corresponding percentage in England is 18 and in Germany, nine. In India, government statistics claim it is two per cent. Javed Abidi of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People has a very poignant question with regard to the above numbers: what is so amazing about the Indian environment or climate or gene pool that we have only a tenth or a fifth of the number of persons with disabilities when compared to other countries? Or is it that something is wrong with our counting?
Until the year 2000 — 53 years after Independence — the Census did not record a single disabled person in India! In other words, in the minds of the people making policy, taking decisions and allocating funds, the disabled did not exist. And if they did not exist, obviously we did not do much for them. So in the first 53 years of Independence, while we were building the infrastructure of our country, we did little or nothing to include them in our thoughts and actions. Therefore, the bulk of our infrastructure is not disabled-friendly, leaving them further marginalised, and disabling them further.
How we behave with the disabled among us tells us what kind of a people we are.
Ketan Kothari, another expert, explains how, by and large, we have two kinds of reactions to disabled people: one, that they must have done something wrong in their previous birth and therefore deserve what they got; two, let us use them as a ticket to heaven — make a donation to an organisation working for the disabled, or give money to a disabled person asking for alms, and score some brownie points with God. If this is how many of us behave towards the disabled, it is a sorry picture that we paint of ourselves.
Time to change, guys.
So where and how should this change begin? Education.
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme and the Right to Education Act say that every child in India is guaranteed an education. Despite that, most regular schools in India deny admission to children with disabilities. They cite lack of infrastructure and trained special educators. They are probably right. But what stops so many schools across India from becoming inclusive and disabled-friendly? Who is putting a gun to their heads, not allowing them to do this? I'm afraid it is our own lack of thought, application of mind, and maybe of heart. Let's change that. If we start today, each school (if it really wants to) can become a truly integrated school within a period of two, or at most three, years. Let each school make this its target.
Currently, an alarmingly low percentage of children with disabilities are educated. Without the foundation of a strong education, no child can reach his or her potential in life. By denying children with disabilities admission in regular schools, we are denying them their right to education and, therefore, their right to make their lives productive.We are also denying other children the right to intermingle with, learn from, and grow up with friends with disabilities, and vice versa. With education for our persons with disabilities, we can prepare them to be productive, look after themselves, and their families.
The government says two per cent of our population is disabled. Various experts and NGOs say it is six per cent. I think it is safe to assume that the number is somewhere between six and 10 per cent — let's say eight. Now eight per cent of 1.2 billion is 96 million. That is more than the population of England (51 million), France (65 million) and Germany (80 million). As Mr. Abidi puts it, what we as society need to decide is, do we want 96 million of our population to be uneducated, unemployed, unproductive and left with no choice but to be a weight that the rest of us carry? Or do we want them to be educated, employed, productive, able to look after themselves and their families, contributing to the growth and wealth of our nation? If we want the latter then we simply cannot achieve that without including them in our mainstream education system.
That's the bottom line.
Jai Hind. Satyamev Jayate.
(Aamir Khan is an actor. His column will be published in The Hindu every Monday.)