04.07.2019 - UNESCO Office in New Delhi

Op-ed: Every Child Can Learn

By Eric Falt

To read the online version in the Journal of Society For Policy Studies, click here

According to current statistics, at least 15 per cent of the global population lives with some form of disability. It is only just and equitable that this group of over a billion persons be allowed to participate fully in every sphere of life. Trying to ensure that they are able to do so, however, presents serious challenges.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development clearly implies that disability cannot be a reason for inadequate access to development programming or a lack of realization of human rights. Indeed, seven targets and 11 indicators of the 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 international 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 emphasized that we must be responsive to the rights of persons of with disabilities.

Unfortunately, despite the articulation of these rights by global frameworks and national policies, and the concrete steps taken to implement them, there remain disturbing gaps between commitments made and the everyday lived reality of persons with disabilities around the world.

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 recognizes 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. 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.

There is no doubt that these are encouraging developments. We believe, however, that collectively we need to do much more for the uplift of children with disabilities in India.

Children with disabilities continue to 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. A lack of educational resources, infrastructure and qualified teachers for the disabled, sometimes coupled with discriminatory attitudes towards them, have created a situation where less than one-third of India’s population of disabled persons is able to join the country’s workforce.

Disability tends to interact with other identities such as gender. It is common for vulnerable groups such as women and girls with disabilities to become targets of multiple forms of discrimination. As a 2018 UN report notes, women with disabilities are three times more likely than men with disabilities 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.

In education, as in other fields, our disability-related interventions must be guided by Target 5.1 of the SDGs, that calls upon us to ‘End all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere’. 

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 systemic barriers to education. Third, inclusion is about the 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.

It is with these principles in mind that UNESCO is launching N for Nose – State of the Education Report for India 2019: Children with Disabilities, in July 2019. The report is the first of a series of annual UNESCO reports that will focus on the status of a particular aspect of education in India.

The report articulates a vision of education for children with disabilities for 2030. It critically analyses existing normative frameworks and policies, and educational infrastructure and resources (including teacher training systems, pedagogical tools, curricula and textbooks, and the use of ICTs to support education for children with disabilities). Besides comprehensively studying the current state of education for children with disabilities in India, the report also highlights achievements and success stories from across the country, along with accounts of challenges that need to be overcome.

The report’s principal objective is to explore how inclusive education for children with disabilities can be mainstreamed within the Indian educational system. We hope that India’s new National Education Policy will take cognizance of some of the report’s key findings and recommendations.

Inclusive education is born of the core belief that every child can learn. The global discourse around inclusive education 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 much wider range of educational experiences, approaches, elements and outcomes. Sustained cooperation and a collegial spirit that binds multiple stakeholders is critical if inclusive education for children with disabilities is to be effective in India.

As Goal 4 of the SDGs urges us to do, let us come together to ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’.

Eric Falt is the Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka

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