Quality education should not be a mere policy goal; it ought to be a public good and commitment, and a strong tool that can empower the marginalised and overpower their marginalisations. The Supreme Court in the case of Vahini Hain v. State of Karnataka had emphatically declared that the right to a dignified life was meaningless without the right to education, and this right was therefore, as fundamental as the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
But various policies tend to deny this fundamental right (of quality education) to millions of people, among them, people with disabilities.
As a 100 percent visually-impaired law student, I have myself encountered umpteen challenges such as inaccessible buildings (including schools / colleges), lack of accessible books, attitudinal barriers, and ablest biases. The situation worsens, when the policies fail to accommodate the varying needs of people with disabilities across the spectrum.
Let’s Change Vocab & Attitude Towards Children With Disability
I believe that there are only two remedies to the problem at hand. First, the apt representation of PWDs (person with disability) in the law-making bodies must be ensured. Second, a consultative process of drafting policies that takes all the stakeholders into confidence, must be fostered. But witnessing a system that neither provides for effective consultation nor for proper political representation is really sad for me as a policy enthusiast, a law student, and a person with disability.
The 2019 ‘State of the Education Report for India: Children with Disabilities’ reveals very disappointing statistics.
According to this report, nearly 27 percent of children with disabilities (CWDs) in India do not attend schools. In light of this report, it is imperative for the government to come up with an effective and inclusive education policy to empower the CWDs. But a close look at the recent draft education policy reveals that their requirements have been clearly ignored by the government.
A major flaw in the policy is the vocabulary that has been used to refer to the CWDs.
Phrases such as “children with special needs” and “special education” have been used. These phrases have become redundant in today’s day and age, when people have started looking at disability as being a different ability. Moreover, these terms are legally inconsistent because the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 does not use such vocabulary, and rather, “children with disabilities” is the correct phrase to be used according to this act.
Loopholes in Draft National Education Policy: No Intersectionality, No Mention of RPWD Act 2016
Even though the former Union HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar said that the policy was based on the bottom-up model where the stakeholders were included in the process of drafting, the appendix attached to the policy suggests otherwise. None of the NGOs working in the area of disability rights were consulted while the policy was being drafted.
The very fact that the whole draft does not even mention the Rights of Persons With Disability Act 2016 even once, suggests that the CWDs have been clearly neglected by the able-bodied lawmakers.
Ironically, the draft makes a reference a 1995 Act concerning persons with disability, which has become redundant after the passage of the 2016 Act.
The policy remains silent on the status of special schools which are predominantly run by NGOs. Presently they do not come under the Right to Education Act, and this leads to further alienation of the CWDs. Moreover, these special schools, and the schools under the MHRD are not treated at par with one another. For instance, a child with disability cannot enroll for a vocational course with a special school certificate.
The policy also does not take into account intersectionality, and thus, is blind to gender, caste and class.
Children with disabilities face discrimination at every stage of their schooling. Be it examination or classroom interactions, this policy does not address many of these concerns.
What Our Policy-Makers Need To Do
India signed the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in 2007. Article 24 of this convention calls for inclusive education. In furtherance of this cause, the parliament also enacted the Rights of Persons with Disability Act 2016.
Owing to all these attempts, it was felt that India had embarked upon the journey to empower persons with disabilities. But the draft education policy is a major step back, in this journey towards an inclusive society.
The current policies and the process of policy-making in India need serious reexamination.
India is home to nearly 2.68 crore PWDs. Ignoring such a massive number of its citizens who are entitled to equal rights and opportunities, is blatantly inconsistent with what our Constitution envisages.
It is high time that our law makers acknowledged that disability is not a lifetime sentence to patronisation or apathy. It is a ‘disability’ that can turn into a ‘different ability’ by the means of equitable treatment and justice.
(Anchal Bhatheja is a 2nd year BA LLB (Hons) student of NLSIU, Bengaluru, and is the first 100% visually impaired student of the college. She likes to engage with law and policy, and the rights of the differently-abled. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)