A new inclusion policy could raise the number of pupils in the sub-continent by 30 million. Suchitra Behal reports.
The Indian government is to abandon separate education for disabled pupils and has asked all states to integrate such pupils into mainstream schools by the next academic year.
The dramatic change of policy could eventually raise the number of disabled children in school in India by 30 million.
This would make a significant dent in the worldwide total of 125 million children who do not receive a primary education.
Most Indian schools use various pretexts to refuse admission to children with any form of disability. There are only 2,000 special schools, of which 500 get a government grant. The rest are run by voluntary agencies. Ninety-eight per cent of disabled children do not go to school.
School buildings do not have special facilities for children with disabilities. Even the few elite schools in urban areas that do cater for physically challenged children keep them in a separate wing.
A case last week highlighted the plight of such children. The high court directed a school in Delhi to admit a physically disabled girl, but the school told her she would have to attend classes on the second floor, even though she could not use the stairs and there were no ramps.
Despite the resistance, the government is confident that within five years 15 million disabled children will have access to education in mainstream schools. It is also planning to train a million teachers and raise their awareness of disabled children's needs.
In a letter to the chief ministers of various states, Murli Manohar Joshi, the union minster for human resource development who oversees education, pointed out: "Our experience has shown us that their (disabled children's) education in special schools is not in their interest."
According to the World Health Organisation and Unicef, 30 million children in India suffer from some form of disability. However, the government has no figures of its own since disabled people have not been included in the last two censuses.
While educationists have welcomed the move to integrate disabled children into mainstream education, saying that it has been long overdue, they have asked the government to look into the needs of these children carefully.
Much of their apprehension stems from knowing that although a law, called the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act was constituted in 1995, little has been done to implement it.
According to the Act, disabled children were to be integrated in mainstream schools and given full access to other educational programmes. Progress, however, has been dismal.
In the 10 years up to 1995, the target was to raise the proportion of disabled children receiving education from 1 per cent to 25 per cent but, so far, barely 2 per cent of disabled children attend school. The proposed teacher-student ratio was set at 1:6. In reality it is 1:15.
Javed Abidi, a member of the Working Group on Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, which will formulate the government's action plan, said: "At least in principle we are opening up the education system to children with disability and the first ones to benefit will be those with physical impairments."