Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and children with special needs in Assam

By Saumar Jyoti Das

As one of the most vulnerable sections of our society, children with disabilities are often exploited and discriminated against. Especially in the case of education, they have to face many problems in school admissions, transport and communications, inaccessible built-environments in educational institutions, lack of special educators and trained manpower, rejection from peers and non-availability of aids and appliances and teaching learning materials. These are some obvious reasons why school drop-out rates amongst children with disabilities are higher than for other children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children (UNCRC) and The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) both uphold the importance of education of all children with disabilities and maintain that they must not be excluded from the general educational system. India has already signed both the Conventions and, therefore, it is mandatory for India to fulfill the provisions regarding education for children with disabilities.

While the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, guarantees right to free and compulsory education to all children between ages six to fourteen as a reflection of the mandate of fundamental right under the Constitution of India, The Persons with Disabilities (Equal opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (Chapter V), ensures free and appropriate education to children with disabilities up to the age of 18 years.

The prestigious education mission of India, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) for elementary education takes within its ambit children with and without disabilities. With a view to ensure full participation of children with disabilities, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has taken many initiatives like barrier-free school environment, construction of ramps and railings and modification of toilets, home based education, transport and escort allowances, therapeutic intervention at home and day-care centre, parents counselling and training programme on therapy service, organizing peer group sensitization programme on disability, distribution of Aids and Appliances, training of general school teachers on disabilities, conducting awareness programme etc.

Firstly, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan uses the term Children with Special Needs (CWSN) for children with disabilities and SSA ensures that every child with special needs, irrespective of the kind, category and degree of disability, is provided meaningful and quality education. Hence, SSA has adopted a zero rejection policy. This means that no child having special needs should be deprived of the right to education and should be taught in an environment, which is best suited to his/her learning needs. These include special schools or even home-based education.

If we observe critically in the current educational status of children with special needs in Assam, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is unable to fulfil all of its objectives properly for CWSN. One big gap is its inability to provide Disability Certificates to all CWSN in every district of the State. In some districts like Chirang and Karbi Anglong, majority of CWSN do not have disability certificates.

Attendance rates of CWSN in schools is also not satisfactory. Generally, the average rate of attendance of CWSN is lower than that of other students. Although SSA provides transport and escort allowances to CWSN, attendance rates still remain low in most districts, perhaps because of inaccessible transport, lack of awareness amongst parents.

In case of various services for CWSN, SSA is unable to provide all of its services equally in every district. There are some reasons behind this like geographical location, lack of resource persons etc. CWSN from remote areas of Tinsukia, Karbi Anglong district, Chirang, and other Hill area Districts face major challenges of transportation resulting in the fact that CWSN here are vulnerable to multiple deprivations like lack of disability certificate, lack of medical assessment camps, home based support, therapeutic intervention at home and day-care centre, awareness programmes, aids and appliances and other services and facilities of SSA.

To address these problems, SSA has to introduce intensive strategies for CWSN of remote and other challenging areas. Only then, proper implementation of all SSA services would be possible in both urban and rural areas. SSA should also appoint resource teachers with desired qualification in the disability sector like M.Ed or B. Ed in Special Education, because merely undergoing teachers’ training for a particular period is not enough for school teachers to have a broader perspective on the needs of children with special needs.

Coming to the issue of barrier-free environment of schools, SSA, Assam has been successful in ensuring accessible and barrier-free built environment in almost all schools in every district. Almost all schools are connected with ramp and railing facilities with modification in toilets. Still, attendance or participation of children with special needs in schools are not satisfactory. Parent groups and community people are generally not aware about the rights of children with disabilities. Most of the time parents are not interested in admitting their disabled children in schools.

There is thus a need for well planed, quality awareness programme on various rights, plans and policies, services of SSA for CWSN, inclusive education and its relevance etc amongst guardians and other community people at the Block level as well as at the community level. At the same time, in school level, peer groups should also be made aware of rights of CWSN or on inclusive education through various documentations, dramas, photos and videos so that no discrimination can arise on the ground of disability. SSSA has been organizing awareness and peer groups sensitization programmes since many years and it is indeed a positive step for the success of inclusive education. However, the awareness programmes are not always focused and impactful and, sometimes, it may also not be possible to organize such programs in the community level of various districts. Thus, SSA should encourage the involvement of Non Government Organizations and other professionals with long term experience in the disability sector for organizing quality awareness programme to gain positive results.

SSA also gives importance to the inclusion of sports, culture and arts in the educational system for the overall development of children and in this process SSA has taken various strategies for the involvement of CWSN.

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is thus, an important mechanism playing a vital role for the development of children with special needs. Activities and services for CWSN under SSA are ample; but what is really the need of the hour is to revamp and revitalise the same to make it more effective and impactful for all CWSN in every district of the State. That aside, participation and coordination from the community as well as Non Government Organizations would also be crucial in achieving the ultimate goal of education for all.  

(This article has been written on the occasion of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities which is observed on December 3)