School gates closed for children with disabilities

Discrimination, insufficient infrastructure, dearth of special educators and a lacking curriculum keep children with disabilities from schools
Last Updated : 24 December 2022, 22:23 IST
Last Updated : 24 December 2022, 22:23 IST
Last Updated : 24 December 2022, 22:23 IST
Last Updated : 24 December 2022, 22:23 IST

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When Suman’s eleven-month-old was diagnosed with an intellectual disability, she did not think that it would mean that schools in Hubballi would close their doors to her. “Multiple doctors told us that she is a slow learner and mingling with other children can help her cope up,” she says.

However, not only did private schools deny them admission, “but certain government schools also did not admit her,” says Suman. Although she was enraged at the discrimination, Suman decided not to fight against school management as it might impact her child’s future.

Even in cases where children who are neurodivergent are admitted into mainstream schools, they might not have the resources to cater to their needs. Advocate Chethana Patil, a native of Mangaluru, for instance, admitted her nine-year-old son to a private school. “My son is special. He needs more attention and care than other children. The Mangaluru school did not have the mandatory specially trained teachers to train my child. So, I discontinued his studies there,” she says. She had to enrol him into a specialised school as teachers were also antagonistic towards her son and there was little progress in his education.

Though the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act enshrines the fundamental right of every child between the age of 6 and 14 to free and compulsory education and the National Education Policy (NEP) envisages the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream education, India has little progress to show.

Experts and parents of children with disabilities say legislation like this, including the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) and National Trust Act, have remained largely on paper.

Special educator, Shantilal M Ostawal, who runs a special needs school in Hubballi, says that these Acts may look rosy, but the thorns lie in the details. A major hurdle that remains is the lack of accessibility in school campuses. According to Unified District Information System for Education Plus report, only 42 per cent of schools in Karnataka had ramps with handrails. Only 17 per cent of schools had children with special needs (CWSN) friendly toilets.

A majority of schools with ramps were government schools and only 33.8 per cent of private schools had these facilities.

Only 27 per cent of private schools had CWSN-friendly toilets.

Jyothi Sannakki (35), a para-shooter, still remembers her traumatic school life. “My mother would visit school thrice every day as there was no helper to take me to the washroom. There were hardly any ramps to reach my classrooms. The school also refused to provide me with any additional help,” she says.

According to a 2020 United Nations report, nearly 75 per cent of children with disabilities in India have never attended any educational institute in their lifetime.

Mainstream schools

While all children with disabilities cannot be integrated into mainstream schools, experts suggest that any child with an IQ of 40 and above and persons with less than 40 per cent of physical disabilities, can be enrolled into mainstream schools.

Devikala M, co-ordinator for disability awareness for school children, Association for People with Disability in Bengaluru says there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way education is imparted. “As long as we encourage special schools, it is impossible for integration of students with disabilities into the mainstream,” she says. She adds that schools are not just places for learning but also enable peer learning. “No child should be denied this,” she adds.

For Uday Kanetkar, father of a 13-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, the biggest question that haunts him is what will happen to her when he is no longer around. “I am trying to build a security net by making her cousins aware of her condition. My top priority is to make her as self-reliant as possible. Education and schooling is the best way to do it,” he says.

However, resources to cater to this need are absent. Devikala strongly advocates against the referral system, through which teachers identify children with special needs and force caregivers to look for a special school.

Although the Right to Education Act had mandated even private schools reserve at least 5 per cent of their total seats for children with disabilities, several private schools DH interacted with say there were difficulties involved in implementing this, in terms of human resources and infrastructure. They also highlighted the shortage of trained special educators.

The government does not provide funds for enrolling special students, says Aravind Meti, president of North Karnataka Unaided Schools Management Association. “Shala Suraksha, a committee comprising 80 per cent of the parents, is the final authority regarding any decision to be taken by the private school management,” he says.

Because of a lack of training and specialised teachers, such committees routinely deny admission on the grounds that different learning capacities “would impair the learning of able-bodied and neurotypical students.”


There is also a clear lack of empathy and understanding of the rights and needs of children with disabilities. Meti, for instance, says the private schools were duty-bound to enrol special students only if they apply under RTE.“These (special) students have separate schools and the government also provides funds for such schools; parents can enrol them there,” he says. With the provision for private school reservations being withdrawn by the state government a few years ago, it is left to the management of individual schools to decide.

An official in the Department of Education says no private school can deny education to students based on their disabilities. “Under the guise of Shala Suraksha, private schools can on moral grounds not deny admission to special students who wish to learn there and are willing to pay a fee. The private school is duty-bound to provide the basic infrastructure required,” says the senior officer.

Experts also point out that the current education system, particularly textbooks, is not suited to educate students with disabilities. “Our textbooks need to be more pictorial and representative so that the children can visualise and understand the subject. However, the textbooks are unfortunately prepared only for abled students,” says Devikala.

The 22 lakh children in India who have fought their way into mainstream schools encountered a serious lack of resources. For instance, when Vidhya Y, a gold medalist from the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIITB) who has a visual impairment, was in school, she went through a hard time. She barely understood what was being taught.


She founded Vision Empower, an organisation which has been finding learning solutions for people with visual impairments in the streams of math and science through tactile diagrams, Braille and audiobooks. “Technology exists, but it is expensive and not everyone can afford it. There is a need for government intervention in research. Until then, teachers have to be trained to be disabled-friendly,” she says.

In 2021, the Supreme Court noted that there is an acute shortage of trained special teachers in India, with only 1.2 lakh special educators registered at present with the Rehabilitation Council of India.

The Supreme Court also highlighted the lack of specific central guidelines on the pupil-teacher ratio based on varied disabilities. As a stop-gap measure, it prescribed, “to adopt the pupil-teacher ratio…as 8:1 for children with cerebral palsy; 5:1 for children with intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder and specific learning disabilities; and 2:1 for deaf-blind and a combination of two or more of the seven disabilities mentioned in the recommendation.”

Though there is a clear need for special educators in schools, the availability for training courses in special education remains low. Out of 54 universities in Karnataka (central, state and deemed universities), for instance, only two to three offer rehabilitation-related courses. “There are no departments established for disability studies in the universities,” says Indumathi Rao, Regional Coordinator of the Community Based Rehabilitation Network.

In these rarely available specialised courses, demand is modest. For many years, the BEd (Speech and Hearing) course has had several vacancies in the 20 seats available, explains M Pushpavathi, director of the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing in Mysuru. “As per rules, every government and private school needs to have special teachers, which is not being implemented. As there is no job security, not many are opting for the courses,” she says.

Far from increasing the cadre of special educators, the state government has recently ‘terminated’ 400 teachers who were appointed on a contract basis. Some of these teachers had been in service for the past decade or so.

Special teachers Kusma Kulkarni and Hosamani Basavaraj, who lost their jobs, say the government gave the excuse of NEP to terminate their services. “Teachers who are not trained can not handle children with disabilities. However, the government is saying that they are integrating the students as per the NEP and withdrew our services,” says Kusma Kulkarni.

A senior official in the education department says that no such termination took place and only those without required qualifications were left out of the roll.

The principal of Vijetha Special School in Karkala, Kanti Harish, who is also the state president of Karnataka State Special Educators and Supporters Staff Association, says in spite of working hard, they are paid half of what other school teachers take home.

“The members at the government special schools are given an honorarium, which has not been increased in the last seven years. Though in September this year they have issued orders to hike our wages by 50 per cent, so far it has not been implemented,” she says. Until recently, a special teacher would take home Rs 13,500 a month, now they can expect a hiked salary of Rs 20,250 a month.

“Why would anyone join such a profession?” she asks.

Lack of data

The reality is that at least 2.21 per cent of the total population of India has disabilities and a majority of this population, about 69 per cent, live in rural areas. The availability and distribution of special educators, curriculum and accessibility, determine if children with disabilities even have the opportunity to go to school.

This uncertainty is only exacerbated by a dearth of data. There is no proper data to prove that nearly 75 per cent of disabled persons have not attended schools, according to Rao. “When the 2011 census was conducted, the government had identified only 7 conditions as disabilities. In 2016, after introducing RPwD, the government recognised 21 disabilities,” she says.

Data from 2011, therefore, is now outdated and “it is becoming impossible to formulate proper policies. All we have are ad hoc rules and policies. Hopefully, chapter 6 of the NEP will ensure that equality is truly achieved,” she adds.

There is also a need for microdata and census to map out real-time data on disabilities and find specific solutions.

Published 24 December 2022, 19:46 IST

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