The Quest for Education – Persons with Disabilities, Severely Challenged
Education is the fundamental building block of development; it leads to an improved quality of life, employment, social acceptance and inclusion, national development and intellectual growth.
Published in Your Story on November 24, 2016
The right to education and the current census figures
Over the past decade, multiple efforts and initiatives associated with policy and programme towards achieving the goal of education have taken place. However, there are still millions of children with disabilities and students who are struggling to access basic and higher education and for whom economic independence appears to be an elusive dream.
The 2011 census figures show that the literacy rates for persons with disabilities are much lower than that of the non-disabled population of the country and even within that, certain disabilities and women across disabilities have a lower percentage. The overall literacy rate for persons with disabilities is 59 percent compared to 74 percent for the general population. The literacy level of women with disabilities in urban areas is 61 percent, which is 9 percent lower than their male counterparts. While women with disabilities in rural areas are worse with a literacy rate of 38 percent, 20 percent lower than disabled males. And people with multiple disabilities fare the worst, with a 35.8 percent literacy rate. Their education needs in terms of content, technology, training and support remain unfulfilled.
Challenges faced by the disabled
The issues faced by children with different disabilities vary. For instance, in the case of children with print impairment, there is need for aggressive implementation of schemes to provide assistive technology since most disabled students do not have access to technologies in most states. Students who are blind are dependent upon Braille materials, which often do not reach them before half the school term is over. And this only supports the bare minimum need in terms of reading and not any extra knowledge building requirements. In some states, laptops are being distributed; however, these are unaccompanied by any training requirements, so it is unclear how many students are really able to use their devices. In places where these devices are available, they are mostly provided to students from the ninth standard.
Thus, in some states, laptops are being distributed; however, these are unaccompanied by any training requirements, so it is unclear how many students are really able to use their devices. In places where these devices are available, they are mostly provided to students from the ninth standard. Thus, transition becomes difficult and they find it hard to write their own exams. So while their sighted counterparts are experimenting with technology from a much earlier age, they are introduced to it at a much later stage, by which time their colleagues are far ahead of them.
Children with hearing impairments also face many challenges. They are isolated from mainstream communication as well; there are only around 250 sign language interpreters in India and sometimes one person has to cater to the requirements of an entire state. Hence, they grow and are educated in isolation without proper means of integration in inclusive schools. The physical environments in most schools also tend to be inaccessible for those with mobility impairments.
It is a rather dismal scenario content wise too. The course content put out by different boards is not in accessible formats, so organisations serving the blind have to convert them into an accessible format. There is a strain on resources. In the case of regional language content, the expense of typing out Telugu or Tamil is high and often increases the cost of the book 10-fold. Just converting the basic course syllabus for any one subject for a BA course can run into lakhs. Hence, there is very limited access to books.
The third challenge is the lack of trained manpower and resources to provide an enriching reading experience for a child with a disability. Children not only have to deal with restrictive resource conditions, but also difficult social conditions and stigma at school. Attitudinal changes need to occur and a lot of this begins at home and school. Consider this, in a rural setting; students in a class have access to a teacher full time during school hours. But there may be only one special needs teacher catering to students with multiple disabilities across several schools. So instead of having more support, a student with disability has to actually deal with severely limited support.
Often these teachers are ironically paid much lesser than other teachers, considering that they actually need more skills and patience to teach children with disabilities. Only in the field of disability does one encounter a situation where a specialisation is undervalued and under paid, whereas in all other genre of professions like medicines, one has to do a generalisation before a specialisation. What sort of prospects then do we offer children with disabilities? What we need is resource centres at each college and school, or if that is not possible, then at least resource centres at district level coordinating support in an appropriate manner with adequately paid and skilled teachers.
Promoting use of technology and open source software and imparting training at an early age will go a long way in making students with disabilities self-sufficient and independent. And of course, the issue of content is of primary importance. All boards must embrace accessible standards such as EPUB 3.0 for publications and WCAG 2.0 for their websites and make course content available in accessible formats. Exemption of certain topics should be replaced by facilitating learning using innovative methods and tools. Importantly, there also needs to be focus on providing education targeted towards profession and gainful employment.
Clearly, there is a long way to go before we can talk of inclusive education for children with disabilities; there is a severe shortage of even exclusive or special education. To improve the situation, individual piecemeal efforts alone will not make a difference. It is essential to have a systemic approach to inclusive education, with sufficient implementation and infrastructural support, if we are to progress to a point where every child with disability is encouraged to learn and be prepared for a world of employment, independence and dignity.