Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Oct 07, 2020
Assessing the level of inclusive education at the school level in India

Inclusive education for Children with Disabilities (CWDs) in India has been marked by policy incongruities, lack of availability of data and dearth of assessment of achievements and quality, resulting in serious gaps in implementation and untargeted interventions. Although the right to inclusive education for CWDs has been recognised by the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, the Sarva Siksha Abhyaan, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD Act) 2016 and the recent New Education Policy 2020, there exists ambiguities with regards to a uniform framework for inclusive education in the country. The legal and policy commitment towards inclusive education has been motivated by the need to comply with international conventions like the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which India ratified in 2007. The RPWD Act 2016 defines inclusive education as a system of education wherein students with and without disabilities learn together and the system of teaching and learning is suitably adapted to meet the learning needs of different types of students with disabilities. However, there exists several contradictions among government policies. The unreliability of data has resulted in the policy formulation process being at odds with the on-ground realities of the country.

CWDs for the most part remain excluded from the educational system and rarely progress beyond primary education. As per the results of the 76th round of the National Sample Survey 2018,  48.8 percent of persons with disabilities are literate and only 62.9 percent  of those aged between 3 to 35 years have ever been enrolled in a regular school. The report also highlighted extremely low retention rates for CWDs with only 23.1 percent of enrolled children currently attending schools. There exist other disparities across  gender and disability types, with children with autism and cerebral palsy and girls with disabilities least  likely to be enrolled in schools. There is a lack of reliable and disaggregated data on the prevalence of disability. The numbers are under-reported, there is  inconsistency between the various data systems such as the Census, the National Sample Survey and the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE), making the data incomparable.

The parallel existence of various school models for CWDs including regular schools, special schools and home-based education with little coordination between the Ministries and Departments responsible for the implementation of different schemes give rise to more complexities. The RTE Act provides for the enrollment of CWDs in neighbourhood schools and for children with severe disabilities the option of home-based education. The RPWD Act, on the other hand recognises the choice of CWDs to be enrolled in either neighbourhood schools or special schools and clearly defines the right to inclusive education. The lack of synergy between the RTE Act and the RPWD Act has been a major impediment hindering the realisation of inclusive education for CWDs. Moreover, the policy discourse on inclusive education is predominantly dualist with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment responsible for special education whereas the Ministry of Human Resource Development managing inclusive education under several schemes within its purview, with little convergence between the two approaches. There also exists huge disparities between state-level implementation of inclusive education policies as well as lack of cooperation between the State Governments and the Central Government.

The New Education Policy has tried to resolve this ambiguity by recognising all three models: neighbourhood schools, special schools and home-based education. However, the provision on home-based education is extremely contentious and violates the spirit of inclusive education as envisaged by the RPWD Act, reinforcing the segregation of CWDs. Furthermore, non-recognition of special schools by the Ministry of Human Resource Development implies that the quality of education in these schools is not regulated, which would mean that the provisions of the NEP might not be applicable to special schools.

With the proliferation of low-cost private unaided schools in the country, it becomes important to ensure that these schools are accessible to CWDs and there are legal mandates ensuring non-discrimination. The RTE Act has included CWDs among the list of disadvantaged students to qualify for 25 percent reservation in private-unaided schools. However, this provision falls short of implementation as CWDs are left out of the larger pool of disadvantaged children and the schools continue to be inaccessible for them. The Act also fails to define barrier-free-access for CWDs, making it further difficult to enforce accessibility standards.

The approach towards inclusive education in India has placed a disproportionate amount of attention on issues of access and enrollment, concomitantly disregarding the quality of education imparted and learning outcomes for CWDs. The Annual State of Education Report (ASER) which is widely cited as an assessment of learning outcomes for children, does not take into account CWDs. This raises pertinent questions about the conditions in which inclusion takes place.

A related concern is the condition and role of special educators and teacher training for education of CWDs. The role of teaching CWDs has been delegated to special educators in special schools. Teachers often find themselves unprepared for teaching CWDs and lack the support and infrastructure for inclusive education, thus finding it difficult to respond to the diversity of learners needs. This further marginalises CWDs from the teaching learning process. Government special educators work under exploitative and precarious conditions and are often burdened with non-teaching duties. The NEP provides for special education training as a secondary specialisation for general teachers. An important policy prescription would be to recognise the importance of special educators to the whole education landscape and confer their status at par with regular teachers. An important step taken in the NEP is to aim for greater coherence between the National Council for Teacher Education and the Rehabilitation Council of India to ensure that special educators and teachers have the skills to implement inclusive classroom practices. The provision on consultation with National Institutes under the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities for designing curriculum changes is a step in the right direction.

The NEP also acknowledges the crucial role played by teachers in the identification of certain disabilities. However, it only includes specific learning disabilities and completely neglects other developmental and intellectual disabilities. The policy discourse on inclusive education in India has by and large, confused integration and inclusion, focusing on solutions to allow CWDs to integrate into the system rather than questioning and evaluation of existing practices, based on the recognition of disability as a result of structural and attitudinal limitations. This is apparent from the pervasive neglect of quality of education and learning outcomes for CWDs and a persistent insistence on models like home-based education. Inclusive education has to be conceptualised as a system wide practice, rather than being viewed as a specialised service for CWDs, an approach that calls for greater budgetary allocation and inter-ministerial convergence. Moreover, availability of appropriate data is indispensable for targeted policy interventions which necessitates efforts to counter under-reporting of disability by using appropriate data collection systems such as the Washington Group/ UNICEF Module on child functioning. It is also crucial to design qualitative and adaptable assessment frameworks to evaluate learning outcomes for CWDs and address their exclusion from the teaching-learning process. It has been established that inclusive education practices are beneficial for children with and without disabilities and enhance the overall quality of education imparted. Therefore, an evaluation of existing practices, together with increased stake-holder convergence should be employed to honour the commitment towards inclusive and quality education for all.

Divya Goyal is a research intern at ORF Mumbai.

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