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Wake up, schools

Getting an education is the toughest challenge for young people with physical disabilities. A few have, however, overcome odds. Rhythma Kaul and Neeti Sharma write.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2010 00:35 IST

Aparupa Chatterjee, 20, did not step out of her home in Durgapur, West Bengal, since an accident on June 5, 2009, paralysed her from waist down.

"I was forced to drop out of college and study at home," said Chatterjee, who was a student of English literature at Durgapur Women's College.

The spunky woman did not give up. Undergoing rehabilitation at New Delhi's Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, which helps people like her to be independent, she is happier today: "I can now dance in my wheelchair."

Learning to be independent is a start,. What people like her need most is access to a very basic right to fend for themselves: the right to education.

Rajiv Virat, 30, was thrown out of school after he became wheelchair-bound in Class 11.

"I was among the toppers in school, but the principal said his school didn't have the infrastructure to accommodate a wheelchair," said Rajiv, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the nervous system that also affects the spinal cord, in 1996.

"The principal also said he wouldn't know what to do with me if I fell ill at school," he said.

Virat did homeschooling and enrolled for a Bachelors degree in Commerce through correspondence at Delhi University.

"Despite filling the form under the severely disabled category, I was allotted a room on the second floor in an examination centre in other end of the city," he recalled.

The final humiliation was the invigilator insisting Virat leave his wheelchair and write the exam at his desk.

"It was uncomfortable, but I did it, but when I faced a similar problem the next year, I opted out. Had the educational institutions been a little more sensitive, I would have had a master's degree," he said bitterly.

Like him, Mihir Shah, 14, and his brother, Karan, 13, are trapped by the system. While their parents, Sunil, 37, and Pratima, 35, have designed their home to ensure that their sons have enough space to whiz around freely in their wheelchairs in their first floor flat in Mumbai's Shivaji Park, they lose their independence outside the four walls of their home.

In 2006, Mihir stopped going to school after being promoted to Class V because he could not take the stairs to his new classroom on the first floor. The Shahs don't want to send him to his brother's special school, JBCN Pan Academy in Lower Parel, because Mihir has no learning disabilities or behavioural disorders.

"We could not find a school in Mumbai with ramps or an elevator," said Pratima.

Both suffer from a genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy that causes weakening of muscles in the limbs, thus making it difficult to stand or walk.

Mihir was diagnosed with the condition when he was 11 months old while Karan was diagnosed when his mother was four months pregnant.

Virat, Chatterjee and Mihir are one in thousands who are abandoned by the education system.

"Each year, DU admits between 300 and 500 physically-challenged students when an average of 2,000 get out of School. Why are disabled students dropping out?" said Seema Parihar, a former professor at Delhi University, who was in-charge of the equal opportunity cell.

Those who find support are confined to their wheelchair.

Fifteen-year-old Sidharth Aggarwal, a Class 7 student in Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh, has to sit out of all games.

"Though his teachers are patient with him, he remains wheelchair-bound all day long as he cannot access swings and other play areas," said his mother Ekta, 40.

"We have trained staff to handle visually-challenged, hearing-impaired and orthopaedically disabled children. There are more than 2,000 disabled students in our schools and now we have a special integrated infrastructure improvement project called Rupantar, designed keeping in mind the needs of the disabled," said Arvinder Singh Lovely, minister of education, Delhi.

"Physical disability can happen to anyone at any point in life due to accidents or other diseases. All that we can do is provide a better life to those who need our attention," said Shah.