India's educational institutions must do better to support persons with special needs. Here's why

The Supreme Court has held that inclusion of persons with special needs in mainstream society can be ensured by improving enrolment of such children in schools (public & private) and universities.
Image used for representational purpose only.
Image used for representational purpose only.

In the ongoing session of the Rajya Sabha, the seat of the former Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh was shifted from the first row to the last row, owing to his inability to walk to the first row because of health-related issues. This has led to a debate regarding the accessibility of public buildings for persons with disabilities. It leaves behind a pertinent question to think that when the parliament of the country is not accessible for persons with disabilities, what would be the actual scenario of other buildings and offices of public importance?

Out of all other institutions, the need to revamp the educational institutions, be it public or private is more than ever before, especially when we recently observed the 30 years of Unni Krishnan vs. The State of Andhra Pradesh, wherein the Right to Education was included within the ambit of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. This right to education was later explicitly inserted under Article 21A of the Constitution by way of the Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. Reading Article 21 with Article 15 of the Constitution construes that inaccessibility to educational institutions of persons with disabilities amounts to a violation of their fundamental rights.

Section 16 of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘2016 act’), casts a duty upon the government at different levels to ensure that public-funded educational institutions or the educational institutions which are recognized by the government are providing inclusive education to children with disabilities. This includes both public and private educational institutions.

However, the UDISE+ data reflects that for the year 2019-20, only 0.98 per cent of the children with disabilities out of the total population were enrolled at primary-level schools. Not only this, the figures for the year 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 show that apart from the trends of senior secondary level for the year 2016-17, the enrolment rates have been gradually decreasing for every subsequent year across all the levels. This clearly indicates that the legislation, in spite of being well-intentioned have failed to uplift the level of integration of persons with special needs.

Primarily, the failure of the legislative provisions in place to effectuate the benefits of these welfare legislations can be attributed to two reasons. Firstly, the inability to incorporate and crystalize a proper regulatory framework to streamline the implementation of the act in spirit and secondly, lack of institutional support from the state. In RajiveRaturi v. Union of India, the Supreme court talks about the shift in the approach to dealing with persons with disabilities. The court opines that the objective should not be to endow some charity towards them out of pity but to ensure their dignity and to cease their exclusion from mainstream society. This can be done by ensuring higher rates of enrolment of children with special needs in public and private schools and universities.

Section 16 (ii) of the 2016 act mentions that the campus, building and other facilities of educational institutions should be accessible to children with disabilities. Now, most of the educational buildings escape from the mandatory application of this provision as there is no mechanism to enforce them upon the institutions. Thus, in order to effectuate the mandates of the 2016 act, there is a need for amendment in the act to include a provision for the establishment of a ‘Regulatory Authority’.

In such a case, every public-funded institution or the institutions recognised by the government, whether school or university would have to get a ‘green signal’ from the regulatory authority. In the case of private institutions, the union and the state governments can come up with concerted schemes to allocate funds for revamping and realigning low-budget institutions according to the needs of making them accessible for persons with disabilities. In the initial period, this scheme would incentivise and provide support to the schools and colleges to comply with the guidelines of the regulatory authority.

The regulatory mechanism could contain provisions mandating the procurement of special reading materials for students with visual impairment. Every university hostel must have special rooms catering to the needs of students with disabilities. Recently, on February 14, 2023, the apex court in Rajneesh Kumar Pandey &Ors vs. Union of India has sought details from the state governments regarding the total number of children with special needs in the state, the total special teachers enrolled in the state and total vacancies. The court also ordered to give details pertaining to ad hoc appointments and to provide a stipulated time frame to fill up the vacancies.

Another aspect is the institutional support from the state’s end. Taking an instance, the Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India has initiated a Nyaya Bandhu scheme, wherein the ministry has collaborated with 69 law schools across India in order to expedite the dispensation of legal services amongst the target groups. Under the scheme, the legal aid clinics of the law schools also receive funds at regular intervals from the ministry. Similarly, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment can also collaborate with educational institutions across the country for the empowerment of students with special needs within the educational institution and beyond it. Under this scheme, a welfare committee catering to the needs and interests of students with special needs can be established in universities and colleges, apart from other things.

India’s present disability rights law is riddled with the issue of inconsistency and non-compliance and thus, it needs to be shielded with regulatory and institutional mechanisms for its effective implementation, lest it will turn into merely a ‘Kora Kaagaz’.

(Pooja Rajawat, Deputy Convenor of Legal Aid and Awareness Committee & Jayam Jha, third-year student of law at National Law University, Jodhpur.)

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