As a student activist working in the area of disability rights, I sat through Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech, listening to each word intently. “Sabke Prati Samvedna”, which loosely translates to caring for everyone.
This line, coupled with the term “Aatma-nirbharta” (self-reliance) and the heart-wrenching stories of migrant workers suffering, which has led to an announcement of a ₹20 lakh crore care package, made me realise something.
That even though the government may want to take care of everyone the reality is that the invisible, who don’t raise their voices or who are not heard, fall through the cracks if they are not self-reliant.
Students with disabilities, studying in universities in India, are unable to access online education as it is not inclusive. One may argue that this issue of the invisible minority isn’t a matter of life and death. But, for the youth belonging to an extremely vulnerable, marginalised community, who have overcome all odds to reach the university level, competing on a daily basis with themselves and other students without disabilities, then not being able to have the same right as their peers, is a violation of their being. Our Honourable Prime Minister laid down the five pillars of self- reliance; first, our economy which should make a ‘quantum jump’.
To make this jump, how is the government equipping youth with disabilities if they aren’t even on the same level playing field when it comes to education?
Next on the list was modern infrastructure, which needs to adapt itself to the needs of people and not leave anyone behind. Third, he talked about systems that need to evolve and push India into the age of technology. This step itself should be an indicator to include the marginalised because if they are left behind then integration into the mainstream would be a mammoth task.
The fourth point made by him was vibrant demography, therefore taking into account disability as a part of human diversity and working towards their inclusion should be a goal for the government. Finally, the fifth point is that to generate demand in order to tackle the economic crisis, this shouldn’t be without the participation of people with disabilities.
The percentage of people with disabilities is highest in the age group 10-19 years followed by age group 20-29 years for both the male and female demographics. Experts in the field of disability in India believe that the percentage of persons with disability ranges from 10% to 15% which amounts to 13.52 to 20.28 crore people.
This is seconded by WHO’s World report on disability which states that about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. However, according to the 2011 Census data of the Government, this number drastically drops to 2.21% of the total population of India which amounts to 2.68 crores.
The Census data further shows that 61% of the disabled children aged 5-19 years are enrolled in school but looking at the All India Survey on Higher Education (2015-2016) conducted by Ministry of Human Resource Development only a mere 74,435 students are enrolled in Universities across India!
Assimilating key messages from the Prime Minister’s address, I agree with him that every adversity can be turned into an opportunity. India started its fight against COVID-19 with no production of PPE and now India is producing 2 lakh PPE’s and N95 masks a day.
Further, the Prime Minister encouraged citizens by saying “Koi Laksh Assambhav Nahin, Koi Rah Mushkil Nahin” which roughly translates to. no goal is unachievable and no path is impossible to follow. In this regard, being the convenor of the Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF) a youth advocacy group, I and my team of students have been advocating for making online education accessible for students with disabilities.
On April 25, 2020, JAF wrote a letter to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), regarding the inaccessibility of online classes. Much to our surprise, we received a prompt response on April 29, 2020, as per which MSJE directed the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) department of higher education to issue an advisory to all States, Union Territories, and academic institutions to provide equal opportunity to all students with disabilities.
This was a welcome move as this is an urgent matter causing a lot of distress to disabled students across the country. Not having heard from MHRD though and with the intention of expediting the process, JAF held formal consultations with students and experts between April 30 and May 3, 2020, to formulate recommendations for the MHRD, Department of Higher Education. We sent these recommendations on May 5, 2020.
The Prime Minister, in his address, promised bold reforms, giving the example of how even with the lockdown and government offices being closed his administration was able to help farmers by providing monetary support.
In this particular case neither are students asking for money nor are they asking for charity.
What they want is their right to education and this can be provided to them with a flick of a pen.
This issue is equally important for students with disabilities at school level and with so many entrance exams postponed, there is also a need for relevant guidelines in that regard as well. As we move into a new age where online education is becoming the new normal, I would urge everyone to raise their voice against discrimination and towards creating a more inclusive environment for learning.
The author is the convenor of Javed Abidi Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.