All children should feel like they belong at school. But if a recent report commissioned by Unesco is any sign, at least 2,69,438 five-year-olds with disabilities do not think so. These children have either never gone to school or have had to drop out because the education system is not equipped to be inclusive of children with special needs. Unsurprisingly, owing to a double burden of exclusion — gender and disability — fewer girls with disabilities attend school than boys. One of the primary reasons for this, the report states, is a gap between the Right to Education Act, 2009 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. This leaves ambiguities about where children with disabilities should study and who should teach them. Germane to this confusion is the attitude towards education of children with special needs. Education for them is imagined in terms of the challenges it poses — the need for dedicated infrastructure, trained educators and so on — instead of being seen as a delivery of the fundamental right that it is.
This is not to say that the challenges are not significant. The shortage of assistive technology, accessible physical infrastructure, flexible curricula and other resources remains the first hurdle in the path of integrating children with disabilities into the education system. But policy interventions need to go beyond these. As long as the needs of those with disabilities are confined to a ‘special’ category, these will not be a part of regular educational initiatives. Take, for instance, the draft National Education Policy which has been notified for public feedback. In spite of claims that “access” is one of the guiding principles of the draft, it has not been made available in braille or an audio version. Other obstacles include inadequate funds in the education budget to meet the learning needs of children with disabilities. Moreover, while children in special schools fall under the responsibility of the ministry of social justice and empowerment, the ministry of human resource development is responsible for those in regular schools. The lack of any coordination mechanism among ministries and schemes ensures that children with disabilities, more often than not, fall through the cracks. The crux of the problem, though, is this: children with disabilities need equal opportunities rather than welfare measures.