Disability and the education system: Despite legislation, individuals face discrimination and trauma, leading to drop outs

What is ‘normal’? In this fortnightly column, Srinidhi Raghavan explores the understanding of bodies-minds and navigating spaces as disabled, chronically ill and sick people. Read more from the series here.


It was in early March when I was scrolling through Twitter that I found this tweet by @AutSciPerson talking about #DisabledPeopleDeserveEqualEducation.

I spent the next few hours scrolling through the hashtag, reading stories of barriers, lack of any accommodations, and the subsequent high rates of drop-outs among disabled students. Most of these stories were from across the globe, yet there was so much resonance among the community. This made me think about the situation back home. Even pre-pandemic, the education system in India had many hurdles for disabled students.

Back in September 2020, Kavya Mukhija, a disabled woman and a student living in Jaipur, wrote a post on Facebook about her difficult experience while writing an entrance exam. Kavya, a wheel-chair user, describes how the staff offered to carry her chair or push her wheelchair on a ramp that was clearly too steep. She said, “We knew how dangerous it could get [to push my wheelchair on that ramp] but it seemed like a trivial, manageable thing to them. In the end, we were really assertive. My wheelchair was lifted across the stairs and nowhere did it feel like I was stepping into a new phase of life.”

Another disabled woman also shared this oh-so-common experience of being lifted along with the wheelchair. Srishti Pandey, a disabled woman and student living in Delhi said in reply to this post, "Imagine, conducting a national level exam with zero accessibility for students with disabilities! Both my centres were inaccessible, and I had to be picked up like a baggage! The staff was cooperative in my case, but that doesn't mean the centre was accessible! It's high time people understand that providing staff to 'lift you up' instead of providing accessible infrastructure does not equal to accessibility!”

Both of these experiences were in big cities, before the pandemic had arrived in our country, and echo much of the research conducted in pre-pandemic times. The experiences, the effects and the piled-up trauma from encountering a system not built for us change and shift based on the disability.

In the panel Honouring Helen Keller on education and disabilities, co-organised by the US Consulate Mumbai and Rising Flame, Priyangee Guha, lawyer and an autistic self-advocate, spoke about the major emotional and mental toll “fitting in at school” had on her. She said, "When you see my profile, all you will see are the degrees and work experience. Do you know what you cannot see? The amount of effort I have to put in to achieve things as per rules not conducive to who I am. You do not see the effect it has on my health. You do not see the anxiety that this brings in. Why? Because simply existing as per your rules is exhausting. Acting like I am 'normal' so I do not get bullied is exhausting. Acting like 'everything is alright' to have access to bare minimum things to advance in life is exhausting. All this because the system refuses to acknowledge our existence, let alone provide us with the support.”

But, it is important to note here, that in a country as vast and large as ours, access to schools itself is a huge problem. In a report written by Radhika Alkazi and Rajasree V in 2012 about the status of children with disabilities under the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, we see the many ways in which children with disabilities are denied admission. Sometimes, the reasons are due to lack of infrastructure, and other times, the discrimination is more overt, especially in the case of those with intellectual disabilities. This has been steadily changing, but children with disabilities remain marginalised or drop out in large numbers because of the toll. Even as recent as 2019, a UNESCO report showed that more than 75 percent of children with disabilities in India are not in schools.

This situation gets significantly worse for D/deaf and hard of hearing children in this country. It is estimated that less than five percent of D/deaf and hard of hearing children have access to education in India. In a conference on Deaf Education: Challenges and Way Forward, Dr Seema, the director at the Gurugram centre of the Haryana Welfare Society for Persons with Speech and Hearing Impairment, addressed how our schools for the deaf have little to no emphasis on sign language. This results in a huge language deprivation among deaf children, as well as deaf adults.

In his essay on how oralism affects D/deaf people, Md Aqil Hajee says that disrespecting the importance of sign language in D/deaf people’s lives “hinders our education, our job prospects, and daily communication.” He goes on to say that “Indian Sign Language is a language in its own right, with its own style, grammar, and syntax, and it should be recognised as one.”

In a country where most special educators are also not aware of sign language, the costs are heavy on D/deaf lives. Aqeel asks us to reflect on how this has resulted in the hidden potential of D/deaf and hard of hearing people.

These experiences, of children and young adults with disabilities who are held back from equal access to quality education, should make us reflect more deeply on making the education system accessible — a principle honoured in both India’s disability legislation, as well as the right to education law.

Srinidhi Raghavan is a writer, researcher and trainer. She works at the intersections of sexuality, gender, disability and technology. She works on programme development with Rising Flame and is the co-founder of The Curio-city Collective.