The Government of India has recently formulated and made public the Draft National Education Policy 2019. It has been drafted to bring about much-needed educational reform in the country. The draft document has documented the educational needs of children with disabilities in the Indian school education system.
The educational needs of these children resonate in various chapters of the policy, in particular chapter- 6 "Equitable and Inclusive Education." Some of the provisions in the policy are a welcome step towards inclusive education.
Chapter-6 of the draft document talks about inclusion of children with disabilities in regular school, physical access to schools for children with special needs, provisions of assistive devices and other types of support for the integration of children with special needs, special educators and scholarship and so on and so forth.
Such provisioning in the policy reflects the glossy picture of sensitivity of the policy-makers towards the educational needs of children with disabilities. However, an analysis of various provisions of the draft policy clearly reflects that the policy has failed to adhere to and give cognizance not only to the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 but also to the Right to Education Act 2009.
The Draft seems to have made some major omissions with regard to education of children with disabilities, addressed therein as 'children with special needs' in the policy and elsewhere it has also been referred to as differently-abled. The policy has failed to maintain uniformity in the usage of various terminologies and concept that are crucial for the rights of children with disabilities.
The policy fails to adopt and give cognizance to the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 which not only acknowledges 21 types of disabilities but also provides range of educational rights to children with disabilities. The draft policy does not mention augmentative and alternative mode of communication, individualised support, universal design, reasonable accommodation and range of other terms that are mentioned in the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 and are crucial for the retention of children with disabilities in the education system.
A universal design approach will be more helpful in including all children. The new education policy must take cognizance of the varied challenges that children with disabilities face in different kinds of terrains in the country. Suitable, simple, low cost, solutions that take into account the geographic conditions and terrain can be found to ensure a safe and accessible environment for every child.
The principle of universal design and the definition of Communication as laid down in Section 2 [f] of the RPWD Act, 2016 must be adhered to. The definition encompasses means and formats of communication, language, display of texts, braille, signs, alternative and augmentative modes and accessible information and communication technology, among the range of modes. These need to be used actively in facilitating the teaching-learning process. Incorporating the principles of Universal design in developing teaching learning material will not only enable children with disability to access educational material independently and become better learners, but also enable all children with diverse learning styles and abilities to learn better.
Narrow approach to accessibility
The draft policy under point 6.8.3 talks about the physical access for children with disabilities that "will be enabled through prioritising barrier-free structures, ramps, handrails, disabled friendly toilets, and suitable transportation for CWSN to comfortably attend schools". This a narrow and traditional understanding of physical access to school. Different categories of children with disabilities have diverse needs and the physical access cannot be confined to ramp, rails and toilets. Often lack of tactile path and proper lighting in the school premises restricts the movement of children with visual impairment or low vision.
Defining home schooling boundaries
The statement "home based education will be provided for children with severe and profound disabilities who are unable to go to schools with the objective of enabling them to complete school education, including NIOS" is against the very right to education of children with disabilities. The said provision seems to suggest that children with severe and profound disabilities cannot come to school and receive an education at par with their peers. The criterion of judging who are these children who will require home-based education and who will take the decision on whether or not the child is able to attend mainstream school remains utmost crucial. Will it remain a choice in the hands of parents and the child? Will it be an informed choice where they have detailed information about the options available and what each choice entails? The danger lies in these remaining arbitrary, subjective decisions, entirely in the hands of schools and children being kept away from the mainstream.
Missing special school narrative
The policy has failed to incorporate and has not documented the provisions of Special schools. Special schools have largely remained under the ambit of the MSJE. It is important to include special schools under MHRD and there should be standards for these schools. NITI Aayog has observed so (Three Year Framework: 2013-2017) even in its latest publication (Strategy for New India@75, November, 2018). There are very few special schools that follow a standardised syllabus.
Many schools such as those that deal with intellectual disabilities do not have formal standardised syllabus and curriculum; nor are they registered with Directorates of education in respective states. All these children (who may some point get certification through NIOS) are not covered by surveys like IMRB and are considered out of school children.
The policy must address special schools and the children studying in the special schools as the RPWD Act (2016) gives this choice to the child.
NDEP has not given adequate space and has not defined the roles of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment/ Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. It has remained silent on the modalities and mechanism of convergence between MHRD and the MSJE in order to provide the educational rights of children with disabilities. Additionally, the policy has remained silent on the roles, functions and responsibilities of Disability Commissioners.
Given such omissions, the Draft New Education Policy provides a piece-meal approach towards the inclusive education of children with disabilities. There is a need to create awareness and sensitize the various stakeholders towards the educational needs of children with disabilities and due recognition must be given in the policy to the provisions of Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 in the policy both in terms of spirit and principles.
— The writer is Ph.D. Research Scholar, School of Gender Studies, TISS, Hyderabad
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