Most of us recount our school memories with fondness, but for children like Sakshi*, school has been no less than adversity.
A student of Delhi Public School, Sakshi was born with one of her legs deformed, leaving her dependent on her parents and her wheelchair. The fact that people with long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment face more problems while dealing with daily tasks requires no evidence to stand true.
Especially in a country like India, with a rising population that hasn’t been sensitised to the issues faced by people with disabilities (PwDs), life itself becomes a difficult exam. But an even pressing matter is the systematic exclusion of children with disabilities (CwDs) from the Indian education perspective.
Currently, there are around 2.68 crore PwDs in India, roughly 2.21% of the country’s population. And yet, ramps and disability-friendly toilets have still not significantly permeated the landscape.
Even though Government data states that most schools in India have been equipped with ramps, handrails and disability-friendly washrooms, what this data doesn’t factor into account is the lack of inclusive infrastructure when it comes to school laboratories, auditoriums and restricted access to the higher or basement levels in schools.
Many students with disabilities find it difficult to access disability-friendly washrooms as well, owing to the fact that not all washrooms in schools and colleges are made accessible to them. Furthermore, schools built in more congested spaces do not even have enough space for the mobility of children with disabilities, restricting their access to one or two classrooms at best.
“The laboratory benches were at just a slightly higher height than what would have been comfortable for me, putting a lot of pressure on my back when I conduct experiments,” Sakshi tells me while recounting the very slight discomforts she had to face, which ultimately added to a stressful and uncomfortable high school experience.
It isn’t just limited to the classrooms either; there is a severe lack of recreational activities for students with disabilities. “Playing games with more physical input was also out of the question. There have been multiple times that I had wanted to play basketball with my friends, but it wasn’t possible for me,” Sakshi says.
Leisure activities like theatre, drama and Special Olympic Games help students with intellectual disabilities relieve some of their stress, but they are often denied the opportunity to participate simply because they might require more time and support.
Special schools exist all around the country to accommodate the needs of CwDs. However, it is imperative that these kids are not alienated from their peers. Although the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 makes it clear by stating that institutions should provide the facilities required for the holistic development of CwDs and make the learning environment more inclusive, the exact definitions of these terms are flimsy at best.
According to a UN report, around 75% of CwDs in India do not attend any educational institution in their entire life. The ones that are able to are more often than not from urban cities, with a stable financial background. Thus, there is a regional gap among PwDs themselves, making it all the more harder for them to access resources concentrated in metropolitan areas.
A learning environment needs to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to provide students with the space required for their growth. But when the curriculum itself lacks representation of PwDs, how do students learn?
Aryan*, an 11th-grade student diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, tells us that in his 11 years of schooling, he has never once seen an accurate representation of children on the spectrum, if at all, barring his 11th-grade psychology textbook. And even this meagre representation comes in too little too late.
Impressionable young minds are much more adaptive when it comes to learning new behavioural patterns as and when the need arises. But when conversations surrounding disability are hushed, they internalise the stigma surrounding it.
Sakshi* and Aryan* are some of the very few students in their schools with a disability. The number of CwDs in most mainstream schools doesn’t even cross the threshold of double digits. This is not only a result of a lack of infrastructure but also the extreme lack of information and training provided to teachers when it comes to the inclusion of disability in the classroom.
For one thing, sign language and Braille are still only taught in special schools, making mainstream schools exclusive to students without disabilities only. Almost all schools in the country do not even have a sign language interpreter to make learning easier for these students.
Secondly, teachers lack the necessary understanding of the disability of their students when it comes to teaching. As a result, their teaching and methods are highly insensitive to the needs of students with learning disorders such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc., as well as those with behavioural disorders such as Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
While the pandemic disrupted the education and schooling of almost every student in the country, the worst hit were those who had learning or other disabilities. The digital divide reared its ugly head when about 64% of students (CwD) in a survey did not have smartphones or laptops at home. Those who did have a device lacked the required measures to make learning easier.
The new normal clearly has no space for students who require some specific support to continue their education.
Lack of screen readers, scribes, the fast pace with which the syllabus was being covered and the severe lack of regard for their problems with online learning further added to their woes. The survey grimly concluded that 43% of students with disabilities planned to drop studies due to these problems.
The right to education is enshrined in the constitution as a Fundamental Right, which must also be provided to students with disabilities. The need of the hour is rapid policy and curricula changes to make learning more inclusive, with proper training mandatory for all teachers and staff.
Education is the only way for these students to acquire the skills needed for them to gain employment, the lack of which acts as a catalyst for poverty to their entire community.
It is high time that the new normal adapts itself to their needs with innovative solutions to make education more accessible and disability-friendly.
*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.