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Out of sight, out of mind

By Shampa Sengupta

Even as the country acknowledges that the disabled must be integrated into the mainstream educational system, a study in Kolkata reveals that 50% of government schools and 36% of private schools in the city are not even aware of the 3% reservation for disabled children guaranteed under the Persons with Disabilities Act

All children have the right to learn together and grow up together. That's what common sense tells us. However, people are divided on the basis of gender, caste, religion and ability, according to the norms of society, right from their childhood.

Persons with disability have always been isolated from the rest of society. Families have always felt the stigma of having an imperfect child and cut themselves off from their neighbours and friends as a way of hiding their shame. Disabled children were 'put away' in an institution that was almost always geographically isolated and self-contained. Segregation was and continues to be one of the most widespread forms of exclusion.

India's education system on the whole is designed for people without disabilities, as are most other services in the country. For disabled people, an attempt has been made to set up a parallel system of education by way of 'special schools'.

Although special schools do play a role in rehabilitation, they also keep people with disabilities away from the mainstream, and the mainstream away from people with disabilities. In fact these institutions have helped push children with disabilities to the periphery where they grow up in a markedly different atmosphere compared to 'normal' children.

Education is a medium through which the futures of children are moulded. If children are educated differently, the differential treatment is ingrained in them making their future integration into mainstream society almost impossible.

The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, holds the State responsible for the education of all disabled persons until the age of 18, and stipulates 3% reservation for them in government educational institutions or institutions supported by the government. Government schools are bound by law to provide admission to disabled students. The law also stipulates that all public buildings, including educational institutions, be made accessible to everyone.

In 2007, 12 years after this law was passed, a group of young volunteers for CRY (Child Rights and You) and Sruti Disability Rights Centre conducted a study in Kolkata to discover the gap between policy and ground reality on the issue of inclusive education.

In an attempt to cover various aspects of inclusive education, the group sought an appointment with 65 schools in the city, of which only 30, including 16 government schools and 14 private schools, responded positively. Shockingly, the study revealed that 50% of government schools and 36% of private schools were not aware of the 3% reservation for disabled children. According to the study, students with disabilities comprised only 0.16% of government school students; private schools had a slightly higher percentage of 0.31%. The study also showed that 0% of the 65 schools in Kolkata that were visited had a ramp or any form of infrastructural facility within their buildings and environment.

Such glaring gaps between what the law says and what actually happens was not unexpected. The annual report of the West Bengal disability commissioner's office shows that 80 schools in Kolkata have ramps to make their buildings accessible. However, the office was unable to name even one of these schools, let alone provide a list of all 80.

The CRY-Sruti Disability Rights Centre youth group is continuing its campaign to raise public awareness on the issue of inclusive education through radio talk shows, essay competitions and street plays. The group advocates implementation of legal provisions on the issue. Meanwhile, the number of volunteers in the group grows every day with both non-disabled and disabled people becoming members.

Although the abovementioned study was restricted to Kolkata it reflects the overall scenario in the country. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 2002, persons with disabilities constitute only 1.8% of the country's population. The 2001 census, however, puts the percentage of persons with disabilities at 2.13% of the total population.

Both are underestimates. Activists in the field believe that even at a conservative level, persons with disabilities constitute anywhere between 5% and 6% of India's total population. Can we deny the right to education to such a huge number of people? What our policymakers fail to understand is that by denying people with disabilities an education we are making them a burden on society. Inclusive education is not an end in itself but a means to an end -- that of creating an inclusive society.

Community integration is the only solution to the anguish and helplessness that disabled people face and have always faced. Separate educational systems only create another social barrier between the disabled and the non-disabled.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently came into force. One of the convention's major objectives is mainstreaming persons with disabilities. Having ratified the convention, India has an obligation to fulfil its responsibilities towards its disabled population.

(Shampa Sengupta is an activist working with disability and gender issues. She is presently working with Sruti Disability Rights Centre, Kolkata, and runs a helpline for persons with disabilities. She may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2008