Shakshi, as many children with Down Syndrome are, was shorter than the average eight year old -- with a beaming smile that stretched across her pigtail-framed face. I met her while teaching English and math at the Suhit Jeevan Trust Special Education School in Pen, Maharashtra. The school was segregated, and students with disabilities came from neighboring towns to attend, many of whom were turned away from the government schools in their own communities. The school was underfunded and understaffed, with five teachers for about 50 children, none of whom had any special education certificates or training to teach children with disabilities. Shakshi received external tutoring from a teacher after school and on the weekends, and due to the extra individualized attention, was the only child in her classroom making significant progress throughout the school year. The fifty other students received an inadequate education attending the underfunded school, weakening their chances to continue into secondary education and limiting their future job prospects.
These students exemplify the failure of the Government of India (GoI) to provide a free, quality, inclusive education for students with disabilities across the country. Inclusive education is defined as "a process of strengthening the education system to reach out to all learners."1 It means that children of all ability levels are educated in a mainstream classroom or least restrictive environment, and that teachers design curriculum for students of all ability levels. In an inclusive system, if a child is failing, it is a problem with the system, not the child.
Inclusive education is proven to reduce drop-out rates and grade repetition, and in an inclusive education system, students have higher average levels of achievement compared to systems that are not inclusive2. Leading by example, it also sets a standard for inclusion of people with disabilities in all other areas of society. International teaching standards and laws, such as Section 24 of the UN Convention on People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), state that inclusive education is imperative for all children, not just those living with disabilities. The GoI signed and ratified the UNCRPD in March of 2007.
Inclusive education is written into GoI policies. Under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, which is the first act in India aiming to attain 'education for all,' children age 6-14 should be provided a free, quality education in their own community. Policy makers recognized the gap in educational attainment between people with and without disabilities in India-52% of PWDs are illiterate versus 35% of the general population-and attempted to construct an education system that includes people with disabilities under RTE 3. Chapter II, Section 3, Part 2 of the Right to Education Act drafted in 2009, states, "Provided that a child suffering from a disability, as defined by clause (i) of section 2 of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection and Full Participation) Act, 1996, shall have the right to pursue free and compulsory elementary education in accordance with the provisions of Chapter V of the said Act."4
In addition to Section 3, the "Norms and Standards for a School" listed under RTE include a "barrier free access" building5. Despite these excellent efforts towards inclusivity on paper, the share of children with disabilities who are out of school is five and a half times more than the general population, and children with disabilities in India rarely continue past primary school. 6
The lack of inclusive education is partially a result of multiple policy failures. First, the definition of disability in the Right to Education Act is incomplete. This is because RTE references the Persons with Disabilities Act to define disability, which omits critical disabilities such as learning disabilities, developmental disabilities (mentally challenged), etc. Therefore, if RTE was enforced in schools, the types of disability accommodated would still leave out many students with disabilities across India 7.
RTE is not fully implemented across India. According to the RTE Forum, a collection of NGOs, civil society organizations, teachers unions and prominent educationalists, the implementation of RTE is not complete. "Till date, no state has met the basic RTE norms of trained teachers, infrastructure requirements or pupil-teacher ratio. The deadline lapsed in March 2013. Eight million children are still out of school." In addition, the government has massively underspent the budget allocated for RTE since the bill passed, with a difference of 10,910 crore this past fiscal year 8.
In addition to gaps in the language and implementation of RTE, segregated education for people with disabilities is also structurally enforced through government funding. Under the Revised DDRS Scheme for segregated schools and rehabilitation centers for PWDs, NGOs and outside organizations receive government funding to start and sustain special schools 9. This funding, given by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, further segregates and marginalizes people with disabilities from their peers, setting them up for a lifetime of separation. The Rehabilitation Council of India, rather than the Ministry of Education is responsible for enforcing rules and standards in these schools, including teacher training 10.
Even if RTE was enforced and children with disabilities solely attended mainstream schools, mainstream teacher training courses in India do not include classes on teaching children with a disability, leaving new teachers unequipped to teach in an inclusive classroom, or a classroom that includes students with disabilities. The minimal education requirements for teachers, published by the National Council for Teacher Education in 2010, state that teachers must reach certain marks throughout university and must pass the Teacher Eligibility Test. There is a separate section for special educators which states that requirements for special education are regulated under the Rehabilitation Council of India 11.
This flawed set of policies and faulty implementation results in extremely high illiteracy rates and school drop-out rates for children with disabilities. The World Bank estimates that PWDs in India have a 52% illiteracy rate in comparison to the 35% rate of the general population. This illiteracy is heightened for individuals with visual, multiple and mental disabilities, and translates into high rates of unemployment, with only 1% of PWDs in India working in the organized job market 12.
In order to make the Indian education system truly inclusive of students with disabilities, policy makers need to make a series of changes.
- To make RTE truly inclusive of students with disabilities, policy makers must edit the Persons with Disabilities Act to holistically define disability or amend RTE, writing in a holistic definition of disability themselves.
- The GoI must mandate special education training for all teachers. Without properly equipping India's teachers to teach students of with a variation of abilities, how will India ever truly achieve 'education for all?'
- The GoI must consolidate the responsibility for the education of people with disabilities under the Ministry of Education. Until this happens, students with disabilities will continue being educated in segregated schools run by NGOs in a system perpetuated by misguided government funding.
- As the government continues to plan and implement RTE, it is imperative that people with disabilities are included in the planning and implementation. This includes budgeting adaptive equipment and modifications in building design into the yearly budget.
Including children with disabilities in the mainstream education system is imperative for their personal development, as well as the overall development of the Indian economy and Indian society as a whole. Education is linked to an increase in individual income, higher GDP, better health, higher crop yields, the promotion of women's rights and an overall decrease in poverty13. Denying students access to a quality, inclusive education, whether they are students with a disability or not, results in a generation of young people unprepared to participate and contribute to the local, national and global economy. The Indian government should amend the Right to Education Act, the People with Disabilities Act and restructure education for students with disabilities, who deserve to be included.