A master’s student of psychology at the University of Mumbai, Rupam Kudtarkar, 21, is visually challenged. The greatest hurdle to her education, she says, has been a lack of planning by Mumbai colleges.
“I use digital readers to study,” says Kudtarkar, an arts graduate from DG Ruparel College in Matunga. “However the reference material is not always available — it takes time to convert regular books into an accessible format, which makes it difficult to cope with the curriculum. Even so, colleges have no special time concessions for us.”
A survey conducted earlier this month by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled Peoples (NCPEDP) found that even 20 years after the Disabilities Act, 1995, was enacted, the actual implementation is only 0.5% as against the mandated 3% — mostly due to educational institutes not being disabled-friendly.
Recently, parents of disabled students stirred controversy, asking the state board to provide students with writers. Also, only those students with disability of 40% or more were termed eligible to have writers, according to the rules of the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS).
Of the NCPEDP survey sample size, 46.67% of students have orthopaedic disabilities, while 5.16% and 32.13% have hearing impairment and visual impairment respectively.
According to experts, major problems arise when disabled students attend special schools and then mainstream colleges, which may not be as equipped.
“Special schools have trained educators, proficient in dealing with special needs,” says Shamashree Bhosale, former principal of Jidd Special School in Thane. “However, college professors are experts in their subject matter, and not specifically trained in the intricacies of each disability.”
Special schools also provide bus services. “Many students end up dropping out of college without safe transport facilities,” says Harish Patil, 33, handicapped in his lower limbs. “While I managed to arrange transport, a friend, also disabled in his lower limbs, was forced to drop out.”
Moreover, colleges do not always have paramedics on call — a team should ideally include an occupational therapist, a psychologist, a medical social worker, a physiotherapist and a speech therapist. Also, the teacher-student ratio at colleges is well beyond the 1:15 mandated for special schools. “Colleges tend to focus on the curriculum rather than on individual students,” says Bhosale, also a member of the Child Welfare Committee, Thane.
“College professors need to be trained to understand that each student is different, and cannot be taught in the same manner,” says Ashok Wadia, principal, Jai Hind College.
Nidhi Kotian, 18, a deaf and mute student of Pace Junior Science College in Andheri, made headlines earlier this week, qualifying for the competitive JEE (Advanced). “Due to my hearing problems, it was difficult for me to grasp concepts in class. However, the college arranged doubt-solving lectures for me, which helped me understand what was being taught. Students like me require extra support from the college,” says Kotian.
The survey blames technological and infrastructural barriers at higher educational institutions for the low enrolment rate, and consequently, low placement rates of the disabled. Female students were found facing double-discrimination — 22% of them were enrolled at universities; as opposed to the 74.08% enrolment rate for males. While college placement cells work to get disabled students access to jobs, recruiter apprehension is also an obstacle.
“Apart from call centres and BPOs, recruiters are hesitant, concerned about transportation and performance levels,” says Patil, who works at a BPO.
“The lack of awareness about disabilities hampers potential employment opportunities. Recruiters need to know that performance isn’t always affected by disability,” says Bhosale.
While a barrier-free environment is still a distant dream, several city colleges are taking significant steps to become disabled-friendly. Here’s a look at the most recent developments.
St Xavier’s College, Fort
St Xavier’s has an on-campus centre for the blind, the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC). In August last year, the XRCVC distributed Plextalk Vachak, a digital book reader, and ultra-sound enabled smart canes, to 50 students across city colleges. Disabled students are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities. “I was part of a Hindi play last year. The faculty and the students were extremely helpful,” says Laxmisagar Samai, 20, a visually impaired student of economics at St Xavier’s College. “The XRCVC has helped me with gadgets such as talking calculators, magnifiers and Braille slates.”
The study of statistical information is aided by wikisticks, a clay-like material used to create graphs, along with a Velcro-board, which provides an embossed version of a graph.
For the orthopedically challenged, the college has accessible washrooms and lifts.
RD National College, Bandra
Following legal guidelines, the college installed a ramp at the entrance in June 2014. However, there are no separate washrooms or lifts. “We have more learning-disabled students than physically challenged. Though we haven’t incorporated Braille learning, we ensure that another student, usually a friend, sits with them during lab hours,” says Lakshmi Iyer, the college’s vice-principal.
The college plans on developing a special counselling cell for learning-disabled students.
At the IIT-B campus, all plans for new buildings have special washrooms on the agenda. All existing buildings have ramps and lifts. The Central Library enables disabled students to use electronic material, and provides special washrooms for the handicapped.
College festivals have special competitions too. “We have events such as coding, designed to minimise physical activity, for differently-abled students to participate in,” says an official.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Chembur
The MK Tata Memorial Learning Centre for the Visually Challenged was set up at the TISS campus in 2008, to provide assistive devices to blind students. Recently, they have acquired state-of-the-art software including the JAWS Pro talking software, Kurzweil 1000, Magic Magnification software Pro, Talking typing Teacher Pro and Optical Braille Recognition, says Sandhya Limaye, chairperson of Centre for Disabilities Studies and Action, TISS.
“It is also important to sensitise teachers, non-teaching staff and non-disabled students. We organise a series of workshops called Challenging Challenges for these stakeholders, to spread awareness about the concept of disability and ways to help students,” she says.
What does the law say?
The Right to Education Act focuses on inclusive education and equal opportunities, stating that all students, whether disabled or not, have access to education in mainstream schools and colleges.
Legal guidelines for educational institutions emphasise ramps and other infrastructural facilities to ensure free movement of physically challenged students.
“Educational institutions have to put up directions in Braille wherever possible. In addition, basic medical facilities need to be available on campus, for any kind of medical emergency,” says lawyer Tejas Bhatt.
In the case of students with learning disabilities (LD) such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the exam marking system is different, with special exam rules.
The University of Mumbai, Bombay High Court as well as the Ministry of Social Justice have laid down specific guidelines for examinations, including extra time, large fonts and the use of scribes.
"Most institutes definitely have the intent to educate students with special needs, but not all of them have the necessary funds, space or technology to reach out to different disabilities. As there is a level of customisation required to educate such children, sustained efforts must be put into the cause."
~ Manjushree Patil, founder-director at Aatman Academy, a customised-learning school for children with learning disabilities