By Monika Bhalvani
Since its inception, the Indian education system has been primarily built on an ableist framework. A multiplicity of factors, including inaccessible infrastructure, lack of inclusive teaching and learning practises, rigid academic curriculum, have played a contributing role in systematically leaving out a majority of students with disabilities from the education system early on. The detrimental effects of these are shown through a steep decline in the enrolment and retention rate of students with disabilities after completing their primary school. Because of this, about 45% of people with disabilities are uneducated and 62.9% of them between the ages of 3 and 35 have never attended regular schools.
While this form of an education system structurally denies students with disabilities their basic right to education, the recently drafted National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) provides a ray of hope. The draft states, “Children with disabilities will be enabled to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the Foundational Stage to higher education.” This focus on creating a thorough support system right from an early age opens up multiple avenues for students with various forms of disabilities to be integrated into the regular schooling system. The new NEP is built on the foundational pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability, that promises a learning environment that is conducive to the learning needs of students with various disabilities.
The NEP 2020 endorses the recommendations from the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016, and states, “Barrier free access for all children with disabilities will be enabled as per the RPWD Act 2016”. This recognition of the RPWD act and its provision to enable an inclusive system that is adapted to meet the learning needs of students with various forms of disabilities is in itself a major form of victory for the disabled community. Along with this, the draft explicitly talks about how the inclusion of students with learning disabilities will also be ensured, and teachers would be helped to identify such learning conditions early on. The emphasis laid on the need for developing an inclusive education system that caters to the needs of students with both visible and invisible disabilities prompts that we have indeed come a long way in our fight to promote inclusion in the education system.
While laying this foundation stone for inclusion, the NEP 2020 brings forth certain points that would be taken into consideration during the planning and implementation process. Some of the important recommendations include recruitment of teachers with cross-disability training, usage of assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools to integrate students with disabilities into classrooms, providing flexibility for all students with different disabilities to learn and grow at their own pace with appropriate assessment and certification. While enabling this, it also gives due importance to training teachers on inclusive pedagogies that cater to the varied needs of students. Focusing on the need for implementation of peer sensitization programmes, it says, “The school curriculum will include, early on, material on human values such as respect for all persons, empathy, tolerance, human rights, gender equality, non-violence, global citizenship, inclusion, and equity.” Implementation of all these points could create a stimulatory environment for students with disabilities to integrate and grow in a regular classroom setting.
While we have come this far in terms of policy documentation and it’s surely a welcome step, there is still a long way for us to go. Given the complex nature of how different disabilities manifest, we need to take into account multiple factors at both the planning and implementation stages in this process. In doing so, we need to take into consideration a lot of issues that the NEP 2020 misses out on, and discuss how it can be tackled and developed further.
Firstly, the NEP emphasizes on how teachers will be trained and students will be sensitized. However, what is majorly lacking here is the involvement of students with disabilities themselves in the process of devising policies. Time and again, the disability rights campaign, “Nothing about us, without us”, has emphasized the need to allow full and active participation of people with disabilities while developing or implementing any policies for them. Thus, it is extremely crucial to actively involve students with various disabilities in understanding the specific areas of concerns and plan strategies to tackle that during the planning phase.
Secondly, we need to pay utmost attention to the way the changes in NEP 2020 pertaining to students with disabilities will be implemented. Our existing education structure, built on an ableist framework, provides very limited scope for students with various disabilities to engage and fully participate in any classroom setting. There needs to be due thought and consideration given to how the proposed changes in the new NEP will be integrated into the existing education structure that we have in place.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the NEP 2020 completely misses out on the various intersections that exist in the disabled community itself in terms of gender, caste, class, and socio-economic backgrounds. While making a comprehensive policy for students with disabilities, it is important to ask questions that cut across all these aspects. For instance, given that gender is one of the big determinants of increase in drop-out rates from school, we need to consider the provisions that will be made for female students with disabilities to retain them in the education system. Therefore, using an intersectional lens to rethink the existing education policies and the NEP 2020 would help in bringing about desired outcomes in the education system.
It can be said that the quest for developing an inclusive education system has just started, but there is a lot more that needs to be achieved moving forward. After all, it is the inclusive mindsets and increasing focus on grassroots-level research in this area that would determine if we are moving in the right direction in building an inclusive education system– a system that embraces the differences that each student brings and fosters positive growth right from the beginning.
Monika Bhalvani is the assistant manager of the Office of Learning Support at Ashoka University.
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