Affirmative Action Without Accessibility: India’s Higher Education System Fails Disabled Students
2.21 % of India’s population is disabled, and many of these disabled persons are subject to exclusion and discrimination in accessing higher education. To secure the rights of disabled people, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD Act) was enacted in 2016. Section 32 of the RPWD Act creates a mandatory obligation for all government higher educational institutions to reserve at least 5% of seats for “persons with benchmark disabilities”. Section 16 of the Act requires all educational institutions recognized and funded by government to provide inclusive education to disabled students and make their campuses accessible. Unfortunately, due to non-compliance, both these measures have failed to address the systemic and structural exclusion of disabled persons from higher education.
Less than 0.1% of disabled students in India are enrolled in primary education and it shrinks to mere 0.01% in secondary education. In addition, not even 1% of Indian educational institutions are disabled friendly. Further, India’s first accessibility audit report revealed that there is not a single disabled-friendly building in the country. Thus, access to an education for disabled students is limited at primary and secondary level. This is despite the constitutional commitment to providing free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of Fourteen as per Article 21 A of Indian Constitution and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act.
In the higher education context, disabled students struggle and have to face accessibility barriers including bad roads, no provision for ramps to help with wheelchair mobility, and inaccessible washrooms. In places where these facilities are provided, they are not in good condition. The failure to provide barrier-free infrastructure, the unavailability of lifts and the lack of a special transport system make it extremely difficult for disabled students to survive life on campus. In addition, the failure to provide adequate and accessible accommodation and transportation increases the financial burden on disabled students and their families as they have to provide these facilities for themselves, leading many to drop-out due to unaffordability.
Educational institutions argue that there is no need to make their institutions accessible if there are no disabled students enrolled. This argument is problematic because disabled students will not apply to institutions which do not have adequate and accessible infrastructure. Thus, even with the 5% reservation, the enrollment rate of disabled students remains low. To attract disabled students, higher education institutions must provide adequate and accessible facilities.
In Disability Rights Group vs. UOI and Rajive Raturi vs. UOI, the Supreme Court of India directed all higher education institutions to reserve 5% seats for the persons with benchmark disabilities and make the institutions accessible, as mandated by the RWPD Act. It was observed that even premier educational institutions have failed to implement the provisions of the RPWD Act. In Rajive Raturi, the Petitioner pointed out that changes made as per the Accessible India Campaign and Supreme Court guidelines were ad-hoc in nature and not adequate. The directions given by the Supreme Court are not being complied with and the court has extended the deadline for compliance to June 2019 without taking any stringent action against non-compliance by educational institutions.
Educational institutions should be inclusive for students with disabilities. Three interventions can be made in this regard. First, adequate and accessible infrastructure should be provided. Second, academic and non-academic staff and students should be sensitized and regularly trained to understand the requirements of disabled students. Third, there needs to be better monitoring of compliance with the obligations under the RPWD Act. In this regard, the Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities and State Commissioner have a duty to monitor the implementation of the Act and review its safeguards. Thus far, they have not been effective in this task. This has reduced the benefit of the 5% reservation to disabled students, leaving the promise of social inclusion and equality for disabled persons hollow.