A few months ago I was dining with a classmate in a restaurant that’s always swamped with students. Sitting next to us was a group of students with a visual impairment. My classmate, an international student, asked if they were from our university, and when I said yes, she whispered, “There are so many visually challenged students in our university; this is an unlikely sight at the university in my own country.”
Strangely, I felt pride at this juncture. However, a few days later, my pride dissipated.
On the way to the library, a student in a wheelchair lost his balance on the sidewalk, and toppled, wheelchair and all, into the bushes. A few people rushed to help, and it turns out that he was slightly bruised and it was nothing serious. Yet, the momentary look of embarrassment on his face is something I find hard to forget. Nevertheless, he put on a brave face, thanked everyone and left.
I suspect this is not the first time he found himself in this situation. On examining the sidewalk closer, I realised it is poorly constructed and is a hazard for wheelchair users.
On delving a bit more, I discovered that according to Section 39 of Status of implementation of Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights & Full Participation) Act, 1995, all Government educational institutions and other educational institutions receiving aid from the Government, need to reserve not less than 3% seats for persons with disabilities. Yet, despite reservations, the number of students with disabilities in India who have access to higher education is less than 1%.
According to Javed Abidi, Director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP), architectural barriers and inadequate transportation facility are core reasons why students with disabilities are not able to go to colleges and educational institutions. Transportation facilities are also inadequate.
Of course, the infrastructure present within JNU, is far more disabled-friendly than outside in the city. For example, the university has lifts in every school, marked sidewalks, ramps, braille script plates in buildings, separate bathrooms and ground floor hostel rooms reserved for students with disabilities. However, it is not adequately maintained around the campus.
Secondly, accessibility across campuses varies. “At south campus in Delhi University, though there are proper ramps on the ground floor, there is no lift. Hence, each time I attend university, the whole class needs to be shifted to the ground floor just because of me,” shares Master’s student, Vinayana Khurana, who feels strongly about having lifts in all campus buildings.
A college environment is supposed to nurture young minds, and help students reach their full potential. But if students with disabilities are not provided with the same safety and comfort as other students, this is blatantly discriminatory. It will not only adversely affect the higher education and career prospects of this demographic of students but impact the entire course of their lives and livelihoods. Is this our idea of equality?
Soniya Ahuja is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.