By Lillian D’Costa
There is a need for greater commitment and decisive action from the government.
One of the many reasons why the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched was because the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment found that five per cent of all children are those with special needs. The National Sample Survey Organisation of 2002 report on “Disabled Persons in India” also estimated that 55 per cent of persons with disabilities (PWDs) are illiterate.
The SSA traces its roots to The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995, which provides that every child with disabilities shall have access to free education up to 18 years of age. The SSA started out with the noble goals of increasing access, enrolment and retention in schools, reduce dropouts and provide quality education.
It adopts a Zero Rejection policy towards children with special needs. After years of special (read segregated) schools, the SSA strongly advocated inclusive education, an initiative in the right direction for mainstreaming disability. Yet four years after the launch of SSA and a whopping expenditure of Rs 11133.57 crore, the targets have only been partially achieved says the CAG report for 2005.
One of the major problems which hinder children with disabilities from attending school is the distance and the need for special transportation to commute. Public transport in rural areas is little and far between. Children on wheelchairs, wearing callipers or on elbow crutches find it extremely difficult to get in and out of buses, while most areas however simply lack transportation and the student is required to walk. SSA does have a provision for providing a transport cost of Rs 400 per year per student but it is grossly inadequate to hire private transport. Some schools have been given a small grant under SSA to modify the school and make them accessible. But these modifications have been restricted to constructing ramps and putting railing for children with locomotor disabilities, since specifications have not been given for these constructions, it is not unusual to find the gradient of the ramp too steep and the children are unable to push their wheelchair without assistance. Little or no attention has been paid to making toilets accessible.
Another major problem is the virtual non existence of a disabled friendly syllabus. What happens to a student with visual impairment? They need audio tapes containing the syllabus; they need to be taught Braille and provided with a Braille slate. A similar situation arises for students with a hearing impairment who needs to be taught sign language. Presently, of the two teachers in each village school, one is trained to handle children with disabilities. She is expected to deal with all types of disabilities and she is expected to do this over and above her regular class, which may range from the Std I-IV or Std V-VII!! And we haven’t even mentioned the mentally retarded students yet who are also included in the SSA.
Need of the hour
We are really talking of millions of children here. When one thinks carefully one cannot fail to realise the tremendous waste of human potential and the violation of these children’s fundamental right to education. The SSA is undoubtedly a great policy but when it comes to implementation it is still a hotchpotch of experiments and trial and error schemes. There is an urgent need for greater commitment and decisive action from the government.
There is a need for greater involvement of the various stakeholders. A policy needs to be evolved from down up. We need to rope in the experiences of students with disabilities, their parents, the teaching fraternity, persons with disabilities, educationalist, concerned citizens and voluntary organisations. There is need for implementing SSA on a war footing, for training and employing adequate numbers of teachers, drawing up a syllabus that can be uniformly taught, roping in the village panchayats, women self help groups and others to assist and monitor its implementation. If not we will push yet another generation of persons with disabilities into the unending cycle of poverty, disempowerment and misery.
(The writer is the Advocacy Coordinator of the Alliance for Disability Rights.)
Published in the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Herald on 11th October 2006