Imagine a world where every person has an equal chance at success. Boys and girls of all abilities and attributes are able to go to school. People hold jobs that allow them to earn for themselves and contribute to their family and society. Individuals are able to express themselves and exercise freedom of speech and opinion. A level playing field for everyone.
Sounds good, right? Sadly, today our world is a far cry from this ideal.
This is especially the case for people with special needs. Even using the very low figures from the Census, more than 21 million people in India, or 2.1% of the population, suffer from one or the other kind of disability. Of these, 1.5 million have an intellectual challenge, including Down’s syndrome, Autism, and Intellectual Disability. For children with such challenges, the playing field is bumpy, making it impossible for them to achieve their full potential.
All children need acceptance and love. Why should a child with special needs have a hard time to achieve happiness? All too often, stigma and discrimination get in the way. Because of the lack of a level playing field, a child with special needs does not have the same access to social interactions as other children: they are excluded from the classroom, they are separated in the playground, and they are often left out of social activities at school, and in the wider community. This creates unfair barriers for children with challenges when it comes to making friends, finding companionship and happiness. This is not a level playing field.
The Right to Education Act enshrines a commitment for inclusive education. However, one in every six out-of-school children in India has an intellectual challenge. Neither the school system nor any institutional mechanism is equipped to address the needs of intellectually challenged children. As a result, 57% of people with intellectual challenges are illiterate, compared to 27% of the abled population. Thus, it seems that children who are most in need of educational care do not receive a proper education. This is not a level playing field.
Early roadblocks to gaining an education bar people with challenges from opportunities later in life. Persons with intellectual challenges are not educated, making meaningful jobs difficult to get. Furthermore, the job market is rarely welcoming for those with various challenges. In total, only 3% of jobs are reserved for those with any kind of “eligible” disability which are limited to locomotor, hearing and visual impairments. This label of “eligible” further limits those who can access these jobs. Over 70% of the intellectually challenged population are not employed, compared to almost 40% of the abled population. This is not a level playing field.
Those born with intellectual disabilities require specialised services to help them maintain their health and overcome multiple challenges. However, in India, only 0.8% of total health expenditure is allocated to persons with intellectual challenges. This is not a level playing field.
So what do we do? Every child, no matter what their challenge, can fulfill his/her potential and make a valuable contribution to society. For children who face challenges, the playing field has to be leveled for them. In practical terms, this means that they must have access to specialised services that help them overcome their challenges, and allocation of health funding must acknowledge this. Furthermore, the commitment for inclusive education enshrined in the Right to Education should be implemented. Most importantly, society needs to learn to look past challenges to see the individual behind the label, and engage with them as equal members of society, as potential employees and as friends. Everyone deserves a level playing field.
About the authors: Pranavi is Executive Director at the Amrit Foundation of India. Having completed her Bachelors of Science in Marketing from IILM Delhi, she heads Amrit with the vision to create a level playing field for children with intellectual and developmental challenges. In her free time, she enjoys art and music.
Chris volunteers at the Amrit Foundation of India and is a recent graduate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University. He is interested in negotiating the junction between medicine and global health as a means of bringing care to those marginalized by society. As a Filipino-Canadian, Chris is interning in India to gain insight into solutions to health problems of the developing world.