It has been a long struggle for child rights activist Zaheer Jan, who, for years now, has been fighting on behalf of children with special needs in Jammu and Kashmir so that they get equal opportunity in education, a fundamental right under Article 21.
“I am writing this petition in favour of thousands of children with special needs in Jammu and Kashmir so that they get equal rights in education under (inclusive education) in all private schools as per laws,” reads his latest appeal.
Like other states, Jammu and Kashmir too has a large number of children with different disabilities. The number of children with special needs enrolled in J&K during the academic session 2020-21 was 22,736—13,190 boys and 9,546 girls. There are only eight schools for children with special needs in J&K; all privately run and unaided. There are just two higher secondary institutions—one in Jammu and one in Srinagar.
As per the 2011 census, in J&K, the population of children with different types of disabilities up to 18 years of age is 1.01 lakh—56,336 males and 45,062 females. Thus, a large number of children with special needs are unable to attend schools and don’t have any access to education.
“In J&K, private educational institutions usually refuse to admit children with special needs in their schools, especially the top schools, thus denying them inclusive education. I know a number of parents who approached different private schools for admission of their children but the schools refuse to enrol them giving a lot of excuses,” Zaheer says.
He argues that after the abrogation of Article 370, the Right to Person with Disability Act, 2016 is now in place in Jammu and Kashmir and under the law, it is mandatory for schools to give admission to every child,” he adds. “But that is not happening. Top schools flatly deny admitting such children in Jammu as well as in Srinagar saying they don’t have special qualified teachers and infrastructure.”
In 2020, Zaheer, along with two other activists, Chintanjeet Kour and Mudasir Shaban, filed a PIL with Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking its intervention in the matter.
The government informed the High Court during a hearing of the PIL that it will make all efforts to implement all laws related to children with special needs. The HC didn’t issue any specific directions following the government’s assurance. However, it directed the government to ensure the implementation of the Central laws regarding children with special needs.
Zaheer says following the HC order, parents approached different schools in Srinagar for the admission of their differently-abled children, but they refused to enrol them saying they don't have facilities to impart education to such children.
G N War, the President of the Private Schools Association, Kashmir, says private schools are for inclusive education. War, who is known for his advocacy for the rights of private schools, says children with special needs need different care in the schools.
A 2016 report, ‘Making Schools Accessible to Children with Disabilities’, by NGO Samarthyam, has a checklist for parents, which includes that they should take their child to a school and try out the access to the school building, classrooms, the library, toilets, the playground, drinking water and mid-day meal areas, and other school facilities. They should assess if the school is free of barriers—like, the entrance to the school building should have gentle ramps with handrails and non-slip surfaces, toilets should be spacious with a western commode for a child using a wheelchair or crutches, and the steps and the ramp leading to the toilet itself should have handrails.
The report found that in many schools, measures for emergency preparedness and provisions for emergency evacuation are not in place. This can result in severe mishaps and accidents in cases of fire, natural disasters or other emergencies. War says the situation is not different in J&K.
The June 2019 report of Samarthyam, ‘Access to Education for Children with Disabilities in Hyderabad: A Baseline Study,’ found that infrastructure in schools is unsafe for children with disabilities due to the lack of awareness about access standards. Zaheer says the problem in Jammu and Kashmir is that the schools don’t want to admit children with disability at all. “I don’t think big schools have infrastructure issues,” he adds.
A report, ‘State of the Education Report for India 2019 Children with Disabilities’, says an analysis of the current situation indicates that an estimated 7.8 million children aged under 19 live with disabilities. “Among five-year-olds with disabilities, three-fourths do not go to any educational institution. Nor do one-fourth of the CWD (children with disabilities) aged between five and 19. The number of children enrolled in school drops significantly with each successive level of schooling. There are fewer girls with disabilities in school than boys.
The proportion of children with disabilities who are out of school is much higher than the overall proportion of out-of-school children at the national level. Thus, although the schemes and programmes have brought children with disabilities into schools, gaps remain.”
In February this year, Zaheer approached National Commission for Protection of Child Rights New Delhi demanding representation of children with special needs in all private schools as per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 and the National Education Policy 2020. The Commission wrote to the government that it should take action keeping the interest of children in mind.
Alok Kumar, Principal Secretary to the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, School Education Department, wasn’t available for comment.
According to officials, the Board of School Education is devising a syllabus for inclusive education and it is in progress.
“The parents of thousands of children with special needs want that their children should be allowed to study in all private schools like other children,” Zaheer says. He says under the law, it is the responsibility of the schools to start vocational training centres for adult special children also. And the government is bound to appoint special educators in government and private schools. “It is a long fight. But we will not give up,” he adds