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Is India’s New Education Policy sufficiently inclusive of people with disabilities?

By Dr Shubha Nagesh
on September 10, 2020

It is as impossible to withhold education from the receptive mind as it is impossible to force it upon the unreasoning”- Agnes Repplierg

India’s New Education Policy (2020) has replaced its 1986 education policy, with the ambitious goal to transform India into a knowledge giant, while ensuring equity and inclusion. This article seeks to understand the extent to which the new policy will accommodate and nurture people with disabilities, particularly young children, and what still remains to be done.

Children with disabilities are known to be discriminated against in schools, playgrounds, libraries and other physical spaces, which leads to their exclusion not just from classrooms and playgrounds, but from society at large. Discriminatory attitudes, lack of accessibility in schools and lack of teachers with special education training are some of the major barriers that prevent disabled children from accessing a meaningful educational experience. An important additional element are the education system and education policy, both of which can influence the education of children with disabilities significantly.

To address this discrimination and exclusion, and to ensure that these children get good quality education, UNICEF recommends, amongst others, the promotion of accessible, inclusive learning spaces and investments in the training of teachers for inclusive education. Two frameworks, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) play a vital role in reminding us of our duty to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels.

In 2002, the Right to Education was inserted in the Indian Constitution under Article 32 A. This went down in history as a landmark decision that held the promise to deliver free and compulsory education for all children up to 6-14 years. While many steps have been taken since then to ensure the inclusion of students with disabilities, there is still a long way to go to ensure education to many more, particularly those in remote and far to reach areas with limited or no access. There is still quite a journey ahead, in terms of enhancing sensitivity towards the human values of empathy and tolerance, and fundamental human rights. The societal ostracism of children who are considered to be “deviant” from perceived societal norms remains an issue in far too many settings.

India’s New Education Policy (NEP) (2020) seeks to address all such forms of marginalisation.

The proposed policy aims to address hitherto neglected dimensions in education for socio-economically disadvantaged groups, taking into account among others, gender identities, socio-economic identities and disabilities, and geographical identities. It also recommends designating regions with significantly large populations of educationally and socially disadvantaged groups as Special Education Zones (SEZs). Furthermore, the policy provides for school complexes/clusters which essentially involves collating smaller schools, with the aim of improving coordination, governance, effectiveness and impact in whole regions.

While the NEP 2020, arguably, attempts to address significant shortcomings within the existing education system and facilities in India, with the goal of improving access to education and creating a mindful, inclusive and just society, the truth is more could have been done.

Here are a few recommendations on how this policy could be(come) more inclusive, for children with disabilities in particular:

A paradigm shift in the framing of disability and shift from the deficit/charitable model to a rights-based (empowerment) model. The policy should explore how school premises can accommodate students with diverse needs. It should also outline appropriate training requirements for special education teachers and remove barriers encountered in establishing resources to enable special education, with cross-disciplinary training.

Addressing implicit assumptions and notions around disability could help remove attitudinal barriers for children with disabilities in schools. It is important to recognize that not everyone can perform “optimally” as defined by society, no matter what adaptations are put in place and that should be fine too! People should be supported  to “perform” to the best of their individual abilities and education systems and teachers should understand and practice this to the best possible extent. If schools employ special educators early on in their process of building an inclusive atmosphere in their schools, the implementation of policies and procedures around education could become easier, less prone to stigma and exclusion and more meaningful to methodical applications in practice.

Incorporation of accountability and evaluation systems in the policy could help with monitoring and  evaluating progress in creating an inclusive environment in schools. Outcome measures like good attendance, sound participation, graduation, reporting good emotional well-being etc. could be some of the measures to evaluate success of sound special education dimensions of an education policy.

Addressing stigma with firm anti-discrimination mandates and regulations. No matter what training, resources and infrastructure are put in place, if attitudes remain unchanged, the goal of becoming an inclusive society will remain elusive. Training, policies, and mandates must therefore focus on the promotion of attitudes and mindsets that embrace and recognize diversity as natural, so that children with disabilities can feel that they belong in schools, which will in turn allow them to be empowered through education.

Active involvement of relevant stakeholders. A big step forward towards developing and ensuring an inclusive curriculum is the active involvement of parents of children and adults with disabilities, and activists and organisations that support the rehabilitation of this population, in line with the philosophy, “nothing about us, without us”. The valuable expertise of this community cannot be overemphasized, especially because children and adult with disabilities and their families are best placed to identify the challenges they face and the solutions that are most appropriate.

These considerations, coupled with changes to the core educational curricula, can set the tone for creating an enabling environment that would embrace inclusion and create a world that works for everyone.

In conclusion, inclusive education can help children with disabilities get increased access to employment, health and other services, and develop a better awareness of their rights, thereby improving their quality of life.

A world accessible to all is a stable world.”- American Disability Act

About Dr Shubha Nagesh

Shubha Nagesh is a medical doctor and a public health physician based in the Himalayan state of India, Uttarakhand. She is the Chapter development Manager, Asia-Pacific & Middle-East at Women in Global Health. The focus of her work is Gender Transformative Leadership.

About Stuti Chakraborty

Currently an intern at Christian Medical College, Vellore. She is also a country representative for Healthcare Information for All; part of the SDG 3 (Good Health for All) working group for the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth; a country correspondent for YourCommonwealth; a member of the Global Healthcare Workforce Network and part of Global Changemakers (GCM). In her work, she advocates for young people's health with special focus on the rights of people with disabilities. IHP Correspondent for India.
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