The draft National Education Policy 2019, which was released soon after the Narendra Modi government returned to power in May, is a disappointment for children with disabilities. The draft’s section on disability, titled ‘Education of children with special needs’, is vague, open to interpretation of convenience, and full of rhetoric. To give a glimpse of how low on priority this section was for the makers of the draft, the document mentions a ‘Persons with Disabilities Act 2005’. It doesn’t exist. We have had an act in 1995 and then a ‘Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act’ in 2016.
The draft NEP outlines the government’s proposed measures in eight points, the first of which lays emphasis on ‘inclusion of children with special needs in regular schools’. But besides noting it as ‘one of the priority areas of action’, the document says nothing on what the government would actually do. It fails to develop a path towards bringing ‘special schools’ currently under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Weaker certification leaves children with disabilities at a disadvantage.
To enable ‘physical access’ to schools, the draft NEP says it would achieve the aim through prioritising “barrier-free structures, ramps, handrails, disabled-friendly toilets, and suitable transportation”. Instead, a specific push to incorporate into schools the ‘harmonized guidelines’ issued for all structures in urban spaces would have been much more effective. The guidelines, issued by the Modi government in 2016, had come up with detailed specifications on making urban spaces more disabled friendly. Extending those guidelines to ‘special schools’ could have gone a long way in achieving the goal.
The draft NEP reiterates its focus on home-based education. This is a step back from the Right to Education (Amendment) Act 2012, which looked at the option as an exception – in cases where disability is severe (as defined by the National Trust). The draft policy’s thrust on home-based education while mentioning ‘orientation of parents/caregivers’ who will be provided with learning materials belies the government’s focus. It adds an additional burden on parents to educate their children. Moreover, the government doesn’t provide a roadmap on how the proportion of children pursuing home-based education will go down over time. Instead, it dedicates much of its focus encouraging it
Not recognising intellectual disability
It is also disappointing to see the draft NEP skip any mention of students with intellectual disabilities (who are now categorically recognised in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016) or creating a framework for their education. The draft states that ‘each school complex will appoint an adequate number of special educators with cross- disability training’ but says nothing about how such a supply chain will be developed.
The draft NEP states that the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) ‘will develop high quality modules to teach ISL (Indian Sign Language), and to teach other basic subjects using ISL’. Experts who deal with people with deafness aren’t exactly thrilled. The policymakers don’t seem to understand that sign language is an independent medium of communication. A person just signing a textbook without the right tools and resources would be of no help in providing real education. As per the National Association of the Deaf, there are 18 million deaf individuals in India, with only about 800 sign language interpreters. The draft NEP does nothing to address this gap.
Educating Indians on disability
One area where the Modi government’s national education policy could have been a major source of change was in the introduction of disability education (on the lines of environment and gender education). Indian society needs to be sensitised towards persons with disabilities. “Bad karma in previous lives leads to disability” or “it cannot happen to me” are fairly common insults thrown at people with disabilities. Most people do not understand disability, unless they know someone in close quarters. This ignorance creates a sense of “othering”, which every disabled person – from children in schools to adults in public life – experience in some form or the other.
Inclusive education can play a critical role in changing this. It not only prepares persons with disabilities to face a ‘normal’ world with its opportunities and challenges at a young age, but it also sensitises and trains the community as a whole to respect and appreciate diversity.
To advance this idea, the draft NEP could have mandated boards like CBSE and ICSE to have tougher conditions for affiliations — like providing ‘reasonable accommodation’ to students with disabilities. (CBSE currently has some conditions, which are very weak. For instance, schools are only mandated to have one special educator irrespective of the number of students enrolled.)
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Modi government had coined the slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” (together with all, development for all, trust of all). With persons with disabilities still being treated as an afterthought 73 years after India’s independence, the more appropriate slogan for our community would be “Sidelined by all, excluded of all, impoverishment to all”.
Nipun Malhotra, a wheelchair user, is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, WheelsForLife (www.wheelsforlife.in). He can be followed on twitter at @nipunmalhotra