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Sunday, 8 November 2015

Why students with disabilities are cheering a new IIT scheme

The decision to waive fees could provide a model for increasing enrolment of persons with disabilities in other educational institutions too.

On October 7, Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani announced that the Indian Institute of Technology Council had waived the fees for students with disabilities admitted to IITs. This followed a decision to extend a complete waiver on hostel fees to students in the "persons with disability" category at Hindu College in Delhi University.

These two progressive decisions ought to be recognised as more than mere good gestures. They should be replicated across all institutions of higher education in India.

Numbers tell the story

Students with disabilities are highly underrepresented at the higher education level. According to the 2011 census, India is home to an estimated 2.68 crore disabled persons – 2.1% of the population. However, according to the latest annual survey –  conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People published earlier this year – on the Status of Disability in Higher Education, out of 15,21,438 students in 150 institutions of higher education across the country, a meagre 0.56% are persons with disabilities.

The survey mentioned that 5.8% of the respondent universities said that they do not admit students with disabilities. The enrolment of persons with disabilities has actually fallen by 0.07% from 2014.

Such underrepresentation at the higher education level percolates to the level of employment as well. According to the NCPEDP’s baseline report on Employment of Disabled people in India, released in February 2009, persons with disabilities filled up only 0.37% of all the posts available in various government ministries and departments, and only 0.44% of all posts available in public sector enterprises. This, despite 10.2% of all posts being identified as suitable for persons with disabilities. Corresponding data for the private sector is not available.

Inadequate support

In a country like India with such a sizeable population of persons with disabilities, spread across all states, castes, sexes and both rural and urban areas, why is it that these persons are almost invisible in higher education and employment? This is in spite of the mandatory 3% reservation for persons with disability in all government educational institutions and other educational institutions receiving aid from the government as well as in employment to all government departments and public sector enterprises, as per the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995.

While the Union social justice and empowerment ministry does have a Scheme of National Scholarships for Persons with Disabilities, it is unfortunately ridden with several shortcomings. A maximum of only 500 scholarship awards are given across the country a year. In a country with 2.68 crore disabled persons, this number is shockingly low. Secondly, the scholarship offered per month is a paltry Rs 400-Rs 1,000, along with course fee reimbursement subject to a ceiling of Rs 10,000 per year. Given the sky-rocketing fees charged by state-run universities, this sum is clearly inadequate. In addition, The scholarship is only available to students whose monthly family income is below Rs 15,000. This ceiling, which has neither been revised recently nor adjusted for inflation, ends up excluding most students with disabilities.

Examples abroad

The education system in the United Kingdom and the United States of America is far more accommodating to students with disabilities. In the UK, all persons with disabilities admitted into any undergraduate or postgraduate course in any institution of higher education are eligible to receive, irrespective of their financial status, a rather generous Disabled Students’ Allowance to cover all extra disability-related costs or expenses that will arise.

In addition, persons with disabilities in undergraduate courses are eligible to receive a host of other monetary benefits such as Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Income-Related Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Tax Credits and Universal Credit.

Similarly, in the US, while almost all top universities provide need-based financial aid to all students, a lot of them also offer voluntary generous fee waivers to students with disabilities. In both countries, the focus is on empowering students with disabilities to ensure a level playing field.

Sustained intervention

In India, there are many factors that have been identified as the root causes of the deplorable lack of access of persons with disabilities to equitable outcomes in higher education and employment. These include non-accessibility for persons with disabilities to books and other educational material, absence of disabled-friendly infrastructure in colleges and workplaces, lack of focus of the education policy and schemes on persons with disability, presence of common misconceptions and prejudices in the minds of professors, employers and society at large about people with disabilities.

There is also the absence of an appropriate curriculum, teaching methodologies and equipment for persons with disabilities. This is accompanied by state's complete apathy to the cause of persons with disabilities, as demonstrated recently by the Supreme Court’s recent frustration over several states not showing any progress in the implementation of various provisions of the Persons With Disabilities Act.

The need of the hour is sustained, well-thought out and comprehensive interventions at the policy level that seek to empower persons with disabilities, and integrate them into the mainstream. A good starting point for such a detailed intervention could be fee waivers by all institutes of higher education to all eligible students with disabilities. Such fee waivers, like the one announced for IITs, will open up more institutions to persons with disabilities, who will have one less financial burden to worry about. More importantly, this will serve as a much-needed signal of positive intent towards all persons with disabilities.

Vineet Bhalla is Assistant Director, Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education. Ashwini Vaidialingam is a student of National Law School of India, Bangalore, and leads the IDIA Research and Policy Team.

Source: Scroll , 3rd Nov 2015

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