Will the 'special university' go against inclusion?

The Uttar Pradesh government’s initiative to start a ‘special’ university for the disabled persons has received plaudits from all quarters. The fact that the “first-of-its-kind initiative in the whole of Asia” had to be started in UP and by the hands of its chief minister, who has been accused of blocking development by her opponents, adds a greater degree of importance to the project.

Many regard Dr Shakuntala Misra Rehabilitation University (named after the mother of UP Advisory Council Chairman and BSP leader  Satish Chandra Mishra) as the most significant gesture of acknowledgement by a state government of the need to promote higher education amongst persons with disability. Statistics have shown that the disabled are amongst the poorest and the most backward groups of people in this country. Despite availability of assistive technology, which enables them to gain access to education and employment, most in rural areas don’t have even the basic school education; their families and community often disregard their right to education.

Those who manage to survive the discriminatory and the most unfriendly of conditions in the mainstream education system, often find higher education too expensive to pursue. And even if a few get admission to colleges — with the help of NGOs and charitable organisations — they have to put up with inaccessible buildings and lack of assistive technology to learn on par with others.

The new ‘special university’ — opened with six courses and 45 students — is expected to be an alternative for those who find mainstream system too inaccessible or costly. If this initiative lives up to expectations — in terms of friendly buildings, deployment of technology, relevant courses and competent faculties — the project should be a definite success. But sceptics point out that the ifs are actually big ifs.

To begin with, the university has courses that are not too different from what has been on offer in the mainstream colleges. Prominent amongst them is Bachelors in Education (BEd). Before the advent of assistive technology, when persons with disability had no choice but to go through special education stream, teaching was considered a great way of employing them. Knowledge being their strength, the state and the country had the best way of harnessing it. But technology has changed it all; today a whole host of ‘possibilities’ exist for persons with disability. They can be medical transcriptionists, call-centre executives, accent trainers, software developers, website testers and field workers in non-governmental organisations. The courses on offer somehow seem not to reflect the present changes.

Activists and experts in disability sector also feel the university is nothing more than a grand gesture which would be enlisted as one of the accomplishments of the state government. Besides which, it doesn’t seem to show any signs of addressing the real problems of higher education. It may probably be given the allowance of being the ‘first-of-its-kind’ and so may require time to evolve. But whether the university would diversify the way that would benefit the community at large remains to be seen in the long run.
Above all, an institution of this kind poses the most fundamental question — what is the need for an ‘exclusive’ institution, when ‘inclusion’ has become the order of the day. Right from the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD) — which India has signed and ratified last year —  to the Persons With Disability (PWD) Act the emphasis has been on how to join the community with the mainstream society.

Though well-meaning, a section of the activists think that the special university would only promote exclusion. Further, if the PWD Act and UNCRPD are calling for a shift in approach — from considering disability welfare as a charity to regarding it as a right — if the university would unwittingly re-introduce the ‘charity’ model remains a worry.

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