Seventeen years I have crawled through guilt, shame, discrimination and social cohesion,” laments Reena who now is mostly confined to her home if not in school. She has it all – a tri-cycle from the government, school books, mid-day meal and shoes, though of no use to her.
There is a divide, a painful divide amongst us. It’s everywhere! It has been given the euphemistic cover, the garb of being differently-abled. It’s used all over and out loud but does the real meaning percolate down to these “lesser beings?”
Reena was born disabled or to make her feel better, I can say, differently-abled but does that help? Reena was pushed away at several places and called by many more derogatory names than differently-abled. “They offered help not out of concern but rather out of mercy. I can do all my chores myself. Yes, I am slow, very slow in fact, and therefore at times when I reach the kitchen with my plates there is nothing left because the government ensures special provision for differently-abled kids,” smirks Reena.
Spending some six hours with her, I could see the shame in her mother’s eyes because she had given birth of a differently-abled child and my God, that too a girl. “I must have committed some sin that I have been tied to this burden for life,” says Reena’s mother while the other members of the family sympathize with her.
The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, has placed responsibility on the government to ensure that every child with a disability has access to free education in an appropriate environment till he/she attains the age of 18 years. This is being followed but only partially. The “appropriate environment” is found almost nowhere.
As per the rules under the 1995 Act: “The Government and its organizations dealing with the subject matter of education of children with disabilities shall take immediate action for incorporation of facilities mentioned in Section 30 of the Act so that all the barriers and obstructions may be removed and children with disabilities are able to obtain education at par with other children.” But for these 17 years, Reena has, on several occasions, left school before dismissal because she could not control nature’s call.
Yes, there are no toilets for children like her in her school. The principal of the schools beats around the bush when questioned. “There is a madam who is responsible for such kids. She is from the government and the toilet project is in the pipeline,” says the principal. He flaunts that these kids were given books, shoes and tri-cycles besides hearing aid, as per the need but fumbled to talk about toilets or disable-friendly infrastructure.
Another provision under the Act is transport facilities to the children with disabilities or in the alternative financial incentive to parents or guardians to enable their children with disabilities to attend schools. Here the students and the school staff often differed. While the schools say the incentives are provided while the children and their parents deny it. When the school authorities were asked for receipts or records of the disbursement, they said the details were not for public.
There are hundreds of provisions, laws and facilities but very few manage to percolate from paper to the kids. There are provisions for counseling by teachers to boost up the confidence of the kids. Even the family can be counseled, however, only on paper. Worse still, these teachers, a number of them, say, “padhlikhkarkyakarogi? Koi kaamseekh lo, do paisa kamalogi.” (What will you get by studying? Learn some skills so that you will earn something.)
Suitable modification in the examination system and restructuring of curriculum for the benefit of children with disabilities is another provision that has been discussed and well-planned but never executed. Each school hands out a proper plan and a very convincing explanation, however, the children never receive any. Sometimes it is time crunch, staff crunch, and fund crunch while other times it is ignorance. Yes, there were many schools where the teachers did not know what I was talking about.
Incidentally, this saga is not only limited to the government schools. There are several small private schools, often in the residential lanes with less that the basic infrastructure, that do not follow any of these provisions and many are not even aware of it.
These were people running schools and they said: “We do not take in such kids. They create disturbance for other kids and also who has the money to provide for their special requirements. ”Article 21 A of the constitution provides a justifiable legal framework that entitles all children between the ages of six to 14 years to an education of reasonable quality, based on principles of equity and non-discrimination. Again, only on paper for these teachers do not know how to decipher non-discrimination.
Also, as per the Right to Education Act, teacher accountability systems would need to ensure that the children are learning and that their right to learning in an environment that is free from stress and anxiety is not violated. But here the teachers shrug off their responsibilities and justify it saying they “cannot afford to spoil the future of 60 students for one differently-abled kid. The class cannot go at snail’s pace just because someone cannot catch up. There is cut-throat competition all over.”
After visiting a number of schools, both private and government, a couple of notions and practices become very clear. If you are handicapped, it’s your fault and you cannot become big and cannot compete with the world. Others will not waste time to keep you in the loop. Teachers have other “genuine” students to cater to and they “do not get anything extra to break their heads in explaining things to the differently-abled kids.”
It is not just discrimination in the form of a divide but a mental moat that may take generations to be leveled. Huge claims both by governments and several NGOs have only managed to improve lives of a small fraction of the actual population of disable kids.
The divide is rooted in the minds. Not only are these kids neglected in society but also in their homes. They are given wheelchairs, hearing aid, brail books and tri-cycles but wrapped in disdain, mercy and discouragement at every stage. A gaze that they is negatively different follows them everywhere and that is enough for these tender souls to crumble before they know their worth.