According to a study by our colleagues at the World Health Organisation, at least 15 per cent of the global population lives with some form of disability. Ensuring that this group of over a billion persons can participate fully and equally in every sphere of life, and creating an enabling environment for them to be able to live with dignity, present grave challenges.
International frameworks and agreements recognise how critical the problem is. Seven targets and eleven indicators of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly draw attention to the need to address the requirements of persons with disabilities with respect to education, employment, growth, and the development of accessible human settlements. Other recent frameworks including the New Urban Agenda (2016), the Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities (2016) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015) have also emphasised that we must be responsive to the rights of persons of with disabilities.
Education for persons with disabilities has emerged as a core priority. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (that seeks to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’), the Education 2030 Framework for Action, the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the 1960 UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education all posit inclusiveness and equity as the foundations for quality education. Entrenched as these rights are in various conventions and laws, however, disturbing gaps remain between the commitments made and the lived experience of persons with disabilities.
The Government of India has taken proactive steps to empower persons with disabilities through policies and programmes such as the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 that recognises children with disabilities as a separate category with specialized needs, and grants children with ‘multiple disabilities’ and ‘severe disability’ the right to opt for home-based education. The landmark Rights to Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 recognizes and covers 21 types of disability – a significant improvement over the seven types of disability covered earlier – and children with disabilities in the age group 6–18 years now enjoy the right to free education. Moreover, it is now mandatory for Government-funded or Government-recognized educational institutions to offer inclusive education for children with disabilities.
Unfortunately, in spite of these empowering legislations, children with disabilities constitute a significant proportion of out of school children in India. According to a 2014 report by IMRB International and the Social and Rural Research Institute, 28 per cent of children with disabilities are not in school. Trends show that 45 per cent of disabled children in India fail to attain literacy; and at little over 54 per cent, the literacy rate of disabled persons is considerably lower than the national literacy rate of 74 per cent.
Discriminatory attitudes and beliefs continue to impact the education of children with disabilities in India, and often prevent them from accessing opportunities for education. Quite apart from sociological factors, unsuitable or limited educational resources for the disabled, poor educational infrastructure, and a lack of qualified teachers impede efforts to acquire an education. Consequently, less than one-third of India’s population of disabled persons is able to join the country’s workforce.
As we ready ourselves to enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, we find that we must adopt a highly strategic multistakeholder approach if we are to overcome systemic barriers to education for persons with disabilities in India, and strengthen oversight, coordination and delivery mechanisms for inclusive education. We must work towards innovative policies that will help ensure the achievement of SDG 4, particularly Target 4.5 (which urges us to ‘eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable including persons with disabilities’) and Target 4.a (that encourages us to ‘build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide […] inclusive and effective learning environments for all’).
UNESCO believes that four principles are key to understanding and implementing inclusive education. First, inclusion is an ongoing pursuit to promote diversity, to learn to live with difference, and to learn to learn from difference. Second, inclusion is concerned with the identification and removal of barriers to education. Third, inclusion is about the presence, participation and achievement of all students, where ‘achievement’ refers to students’ learning outcomes, not merely academic results. Fourth, inclusion involves a particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalization, exclusion or underachievement. This indicates a moral responsibility to ensure that groups that are statistically most ‘at risk’ are carefully monitored, and active steps are taken to ensure their education and growth.
Inclusive education is thus founded upon the need to identify and address groups that are most at risk of marginalization. It is very important therefore that we examine the intersection of disability with other social or economic identities. For instance, groups such as women and girls with disabilities are especially vulnerable and tend to face multiple forms of discrimination.
As a 2018 UN report titled Realization of the Sustainable Development Goals by, for and with Persons with Disabilities notes: compared to men with disabilities, women with disabilities are three times more likely to have unmet healthcare needs; are three times more likely to be illiterate; are twice less likely to be employed; and are twice less likely to use the Internet. Further, among those employed, women with disabilities are twice less likely to work as legislators, senior officials or managers. Inclusive education is born of a vision of the world that is based on equity, justice and fairness.
The global discourse around inclusive education has evolved. It is no longer restricted chiefly to questions about where such education is imparted (for example, whether in segregated special schools or in regular schools), but now also includes the consideration of a wide range of educational experiences and outcomes. These elements could include educational content, teaching methods and teacher training, the learning environment and infrastructure, community norms, and the availability of space for dialogue with multiple stakeholders. In keeping with this expanded understanding of inclusive education, in early 2019 the UNESCO Office in New Delhi will launch a seminal report titled N for Nose: The State of Education Report for India 2019 – Children with Disabilities. The 2019 report aims to articulate an action-oriented vision and roadmap for 2030, focusing specifically on education for children with disabilities, and drawing on national and international policy documents and legislative frameworks. It will critically analyse existing disability-related policies, practices and educational tools in India, and will examine how ideas of inclusive education can be mainstreamed into national education systems.
The report will be the first in a series of annual reports that will address a different education-related theme every year. It is through initiatives such as our development of The State of Education Report for India 2019 – Children with Disabilities, our observation of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities on 3 December every year, sustained advocacy and policy engagement, and numerous ongoing activities with partners who specialize in accessibility and the promotion of disability rights, that UNESCO in India continually reaffirms its commitment to build knowledge societies that are cognizant of and sensitive to the needs of persons with disabilities.
The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has said that ‘Societies will never achieve the Sustainable Development Goals without the full participation of everyone, including persons with disabilities.’ Indeed, as UNESCO steps up efforts to help India achieve the 2030 Agenda, we remain resolute and committed to be inclusive, and to leave no one behind.
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