The RTE cannot address the needs of disabled children unless it moves away from the focus on ‘special education’ and the exclusive emphasis on providing physical accessibility to schools

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. After 40 years of service in the field, I look back on what has prevented millions of disabled people from entering the mainstream. What kind of system is it that has made them invisible, illiterate, unemployed and the most marginalised of groups among the poorest of the poor? What is it like to be disabled in India? My answer is that there has been no serious political intent to build a cohesive system. Sadly, but unquestionably, a person who is born disabled in India faces a raw deal.

Across the world there has been a sea change. With international declarations, acts of Parliament, codes of practice and guidelines, there is a road map for a disabled person on how to operationalise laws that grant him/her a decent life and how to prioritise implementation within a time frame. Accountability and strong punitive action against non-compliance provide good safeguards.

But in India, what there is instead is a chaotic framework. Faulty, entrenched laws, structural and conceptual barriers; a lack of convergence and of robust disaggregated data (we don’t know where the disabled are; what their needs are); an over-reliance on non-governmental organisations (NGO) — it suits the Planning Commission’s budget — delivering piecemeal micro-level service; political apathy and indifference under the mistaken belief that the disabled are not vote-catchers, have no political constituency and have no voice in Parliament. All these have left at least a 100 million people excluded. Is it a surprise then that 50 per cent of children with disability are illiterate?

Discrimination from birth

It is a sad commentary on our nation that institutional exclusion came after Independence, when disabled children were left out of the Ministry of Education (1966) and shifted to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE). Two ministries address the educational and school needs of disabled children but their different agendas leave 70 per cent of them out of the services of both. For a structural change, all that it needs is a cabinet decision by the Prime Minister. This has not happened.

When it comes to congenital disability, institutional discrimination begins from birth. “Child Development” pedagogy does not touch them. Though the Ministry of Women and Child Development carries out the world’s largest preschool programme, i.e. the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), it excludes children with disability. There is regional variance but a majority are excluded from even the basic human right of nutrition — on the grounds of disability.The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WCD) does not include disabled children. “As they are disabled, they don’t need protection. It’s not our job, but that of the Ministry of Social Justice,” is the repeated argument.

The government’s flagship programme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), has not been effective in the case of children with disabilities. The programme focuses on providing them with aids and appliances and even surgery. Statistics from the MoSJE and the World Bank show the bulk of SSA schools are inaccessible to children with disability. There is grave management malfunction between Block Resource Centres (BRC) and Cluster Resource Centres (CRC). Even after a decade, institutional capacity building, which is one of the broad strategies of the SSA, has not happened.

We have been involved in a district project in rural areas called the Shiksha Sankalp with the aim of providing a district hub for mapping, identifying and provisioning to fill the gap. For effective and appropriate expenditure to be done, expenditure needs to be responsive to needs. But finally, it is the government that has to make the decisions, which it does not.

On inclusive education

There is still little understanding of the concept of inclusive education. Archaic laws have been allowed to continue without being questioned. Government departments and NGOs dealing with special schools think that “Special Education is Inclusive Education,” so they turn to special educationists to operationalise the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act. The Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), a regulatory body of the MoSJE, says that only special teachers can teach children with disabilities (CWD). According to the RCI, if an uncertified person teaches disabled children, it constitutes a criminal offence. Disabled children can never be taught by regular teachers if they do not get an RCI certificate.

This is a violation of the RTE. The RCI has to be amended, special education demystified and the qualifications prescribed in the model rules for RTE schools should be applied to “all children” so that teaching them does not need a separate certification from the RCI. We think making education accessible to the disabled means providing physical infrastructure like ramps or toilets. It actually means addressing pedagogy, teacher training and spending money strengthening the knowledge base of regular teachers through short and regular courses on inclusive education. School and teacher preparation is what is needed. While we seem to fulfil the recommendations of toilet and ramps, we are shying away from the central driver of quality education — good pedagogy.

We also need to move away from specialisation. The RTE is about inclusive education; it’s not about special education. There are 1.5 million schools and regular teachers need to be more aware of dealing with children who are marginalised due to poverty, gender, religion and disability. Inclusive education needs to exist at the heart of all teaching curricula.

We are aware of the problems, but there is a policy paralysis. When he was the Minister of Human Resource Development, Mr. Kapil Sibal formed a National Monitoring Committee for Education for Evaluation of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Persons with Disabilities (PwD) to review the functioning of all schemes the ministry had launched. With his transfer, the momentum has been lost. The goal of “Education for All” is hampered when a new team takes over and has to understand the problems all over again.

The Prime Minister needs to appoint an adviser on inclusion in the PMO, similar to that for the Knowledge Commission and Skills Development. In disability, we are dealing with economically weaker sections of society. The victims are the result of exclusionary forces that have a stranglehold on our educational system. This needs to change if education is to be the stepping stone to national progress.

(Mithu Alur, Founder Chairperson of the Spastics Society of India, Mumbai, is a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education and various other committees of the Human Resource Department.)