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Viewing the draft National Education Policy 2019 through the disability lens - Guest column by Shampa Sengupta

July 15, 2019

72% of India's disabled children between 0-5 years miss out on an education, while just 61% of disabled children between 5 to 19 years attend school, says a UN report. Things the draft National Education Policy fails to take into account, as disability rights activist Shampa Sengupta points out.

In recent times the UNESCO brought out a report which states that 75% of five-year old children with disabilities do not attend any educational institutions. This does not come as a surprise. It's also no surprise that more girls with disabilities are left out. Regrettably we do not see the Government of India's concern in this area.

In the beginning of June of this year, the draft National Education Policy (NEP) was uploaded by the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry for comments and suggestions. The document said the NEP would affect 1.2 billion people under the age of 26.

The policy begins with a message from Prakash Javadekar, HRD Minister , that it was produced after "unprecedented, collaborative, multi-stakeholder, people-centric, inclusive participatory consultation process". He adds that there were thematic consultations as well.

However, after going through the document one feels that disability groups were not consulted. Appendix VII, which has the list of organisations that were consulted, does not mention any disability groups. Nor is the Ministry of Social Justice, when most children with disabilities are educated by NGOs which fall under this ministry. Also absent, the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), which regulates the education of all rehabilitation professionals.

Key voices missing

Many educationists, researchers, and special educators have spent considerable time in researching/teaching children with disabilities. In some places like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jadavpur University (JU), young disabled students have formed groups to bring forward their issues in the ambit of higher education. But their voices are not recorded.

Not surprising then that the press statement from the National Platform for Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) calls the draft "profoundly regressive and overwhelmingly undemocratic" and states that, "it continues to perpetuate the existing discrimination against the disabled...fails to invoke a rights-based approach..refuses to break away from the traditional method of viewing disability".

The fact that those who drafted this policy are not even aware that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act had been passed in 2016 by the Parliament is unacceptable. Not once in the whole document is the Act mentioned whereas it has a detailed chapter on education. It mistakenly talks about the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 which is redundant after RPWD 2016.

Further, the term Children with Special Needs is used throughout when the correct term should be children with disabilities. This term is accepted by the Act, the current law of India and it is important to stick to same term in all policy documents. There is also not a single line on higher education. It is obvious that these children grow up and their right to a higher education/vocational training needs to be part of the policy. That the drafting committee totally forgot about this vulnerable section is unacceptable.

A majority of special schools are run by NGOs and their status remains ambiguous under the Right To Education (RTE) Act. There needs to be clear understanding of this keeping in mind that education can never be a social welfare issue, but always falls under human resource development.

Lack of clarity

Again, more clarity is required regarding this section - Special educators and therapists with cross-disability training - To assist teachers in catering to the needs of all learners more fully, each school complex will appoint an adequate number of special educators with cross-disability training to work with all schools within that complex. Will the HRD liaison with RCI regarding cross-disability training? In the present scenario, many special education courses are getting closed, so fewer people are getting trained as special educators. Is the HRD Ministry aware of this? How does it propose to intervene in the functioning of the RCI? The questions of disability sector remain unanswered.

There are many cases where abuse or even deaths are reported within special schools. Since these schools are not under the Education Department, sections of the RTE do not bind them. So, when they occur time is wasted on whether RPWD Act should be invoked or whether the Education Department should look into them. In the process justice gets delayed.

The NEP says M.Phil programme shall be discontinued. However the Mental Health Care Act, 2017 defines a clinical psychologist as someone who completes M.Phil and is accredited by RCI. If the course is discontinued, what will be the new criterion for clinical psychologists? As a country we lack mental health professionals and unless these details are spelt out clearly, they may cause more dilemmas.

There are manifold problems that disabled students face during examinations. There is no uniform scribe rule in India which is followed. There are ample examples of how disabled students are harassed and denied rights at different stages, not to mention reasonable accommodation measures required.

Disability is both a heterogeneous, as well as a cross-cutting issue. For example, reasonable accommodation for a child with thalassemia is to not be rigid about school attendance. But for a child who is hard of hearing or deaf, it is to provide sign language in classes.

Again, intersections of gender, disability, urban poverty or rural backgrounds bring in different dimensions in the lives of disabled students. The holistic approach is completely missing from the NEP. Bypassing the needs and demands of such a huge group of people will not make India a knowledge superpower which the Ministry claims to aim at.

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