By Vibhu Sharma, Research Consultant, Disability and Inclusion, Theirworld
I was enthralled to read this year’s Global Education Monitoring Report, focusing on inclusion and education. Being, first, a person with disability, and, second, brought up in India, I had to pause to reflect on what the report’s recommendations meant for inclusive education for children with disabilities in my home country as I have done in this blog.
Three decades of rigorous progressive policies on inclusion
It would be unfair not to mention the progressive and rigorous policy framework India has set over the past three decades on inclusion. The 1986 National Policy on Education aimed to extend literacy to everyone, including children with disabilities, by integrating them through the provision of special schools and voluntary, specialized programs. The 1992 Rehabilitation Act focused on enabling manpower to provide education to all children with disabilities. The 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act made yet another step forward in mandating states to make special provisions for the integration of persons with disabilities in mainstream schools. It also mandated that all educational institutions receiving financial aid from the Government of India should reserve 3% of their seats solely for persons with disabilities.
The decade from 2000 onwards saw a plethora of policies linked to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government program aimed at achieving universal primary education by 2010, including the appointment of specialist teachers to reach out-of-school children with disabilities. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed and ratified by the country in 2007, while the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act was enacted in 2010. While the Act laid down responsibilities for the government to ensure that all children had access to free and compulsory education, it made no mention of the right to education for persons with disabilities. However, an amendment proposed in 2012 mandated that they had a right to education in accordance with the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995.
It was only then in 2016, that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act shifted focus away from special education and embraced the term inclusive education, defining it as a system, wherein students with and without disability learn together, while teaching and learning is suitably adjusted to meet the individual learning needs of students with disabilities. While this would indicate that inclusive education is still in its infancy in India, its connotations and essence, even if partially, had been felt, adhered to and realized in education since 1995, as the above history shows.
Despite the progressive policy framework, statistical data tell an entirely different story
In 2011, the census revealed that 45% of India’s people with disabilities were uneducated compared to only 26% of all Indians. Amongst those people with disabilities who were educated, 59% had completed education up to class 10 in comparison to 67% of those without disabilities. According to the National Survey of out-of-school children (2014), 600,000, or 28% of children with special needs aged 6-14 years were reportedly out of school. A 2019 UNESCO report revealed that three-fourths of the children with disabilities at the age of five years and one-fourth of those between 5-19 years did not attend any form of schooling at all.
Enrolment in schools is only part of the problem
Despite being mentioned in the various acts and policies, user–friendly instructions, and suitable and accessible teaching equipment continue to be missing. Lack of adequate school infrastructure, unawareness of teachers on accommodating children with disabilities, a shortage of accessible teaching and learning materials, and a disability-unfriendly attitude, are only few of the multiple barriers children with disabilities and their families regularly face in education.
There are two significant failures of the inclusive education system in India. First, albeit inadvertently, policies have tried to fit the child to the school, and not the school to the child; and second, there is no mechanism to analyze access to and the quality of inclusive education.
These, combined with inconsistent and incompatible policy approaches and a continuous fixation with special education mean that it is not uncommon for children to be denied admission to mainstream schools on the basis of their disability.
In a country, where challenges such as these lie at the heart of the education system, combined with inconsistent and incompatible policy approaches and a continuous fixation with special education, it is not uncommon to deny admission to children in a mainstream school on the basis of their disability. This means that children with disabilities who find a place in a mainstream school are expected to be grateful to the school for accepting them, even if inclusive education remains limited to only giving them a seat in a mainstream classroom, but not full participation at par with their non-disabled peers.
At a more personal level, my prospective on inclusive education for children with disabilities enhanced and boosted, taking a shift from mere placement to full inclusion as I studied the Scottish inclusive education system during my master’s program in Inclusive Education at the University of Edinburgh. Neither it is possible to have a full discussion on what the Scottish inclusive education looks like for it would be outside the purview of this article, nor it would be wise to suggest that India, with its multiple challenges, can fully emulate the Scottish inclusive education system. However, a key take away from the Scottish inclusive education system relevant to India is to learn to segregate special from inclusive, and to achieve any form of inclusion in education, to recognize the “special” rather as “additional” support that certain learners can require to access and benefit from the same flexible, relevant and accessible curriculum.”
The challenges to inclusive education for children with disabilities in India have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown, school closures and distance learning have imposed even greater barriers for children with disabilities. As approaches to virtual learning saw an increase, the education system failed again to recognize the highly excluded group of children with disabilities. While the Ministry of Human Resources Development introduce multiple digital learning platforms, no consideration was given to ensure their accessibility for children with disabilities. The pandemic is a blow to India’s already stuttering inclusive education system, reinforcing the caricatured model of inclusive education in the country as a sham.
The GEM Report calls for countries to widen their understanding of inclusive education, to include all learners no matter their background, identity, or ability, so as to move away from special education and segregation. A fragmented approach to inclusive education, where it sits somehow alongside a special education system, is unlikely to bring about any real inclusion. For inclusive education to be achieved in India, then, it is essential to see disability as another form of diversity and to extend quality education to everyone regardless of their background, identity, or ability.
The GEM Report recommendations ring very true for India. We need teachers who are prepared to teach all students with varied backgrounds and abilities, and that inclusive approaches are not treated as specialist subject areas but are rather a core element of teacher education. All children need to be enabled to learn from the same flexible, relevant and accessible curriculum that recognizes diversity and responds to different learners’ needs.
The challenges to inclusive education in India lie not with policy, but with implementation. They lie with systems that boast of inclusivity but are not only discriminatory in practice but lag the resources and the will to fully include children with disabilities and respond to their learning needs. It is time India put its progressive policy framework to real action and delivered on its promises of mainstream education by admitting and supporting children with disabilities through trained teachers, adequate resource allocation, and learner-centred learning approaches.