Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The University and the Struggles of People with Disability

[This article was published in CRITIQUE, Vol-1, Issue-3. Critique is a Quarterly brought out by the Delhi University Chapter of New Socialist Initiative (NSI)]

Dr. Nikhil Jain 

University is a place for creative learning. Introduction of several new market oriented courses has changed the meaning and objective of higher education. The recent change in the structure in the higher education through semesterisation and privatization has led to a tremendous shift in the teaching and learning process. The teaching pedagogy has been influenced by the growing need of the market. This has not only disturbed the autonomy of the universities but also has jeopardized the interests of the subaltern communities. The democratic norms and culture has totally been unsettled with this change. 

Apart from these mainstream issues, there exist several serious issues which still lie at the margins and go unnoticed. The question of accessibility is generally understood only with respect to people with disability. But it has an equal significance for others. For example the facility of ramp and lift does not only enable an Orthopedically Handicap but also supports the aged. Similarly, an audio archive at colleges not only supports a visually impaired person but also allows others to listen to important recorded lectures. The meaning of accessibility goes much deeper. It refers to the degree and nature of connectivity to a larger environment and the acquisition of resources by all. 
Disability could be understood as an expression of social oppression which creates disabling conditions by making resources inaccessible and unattainable for some. After the passage of the Persons With Disabilities Protection of Rights and Full participation Act 1995 by Indian Parliament, disability issues got more attention from Activists, NGOs and the State. Even before the passage of this Act, Disability rights movements have been launched on several occasions by activists in India to address their grievances. The passage of the PWD ACT brought a decisive change in the disability movement as it gave a push to self advocacy movements to gain ground. Several court cases are filed against the Government at various levels in order to get justice in tune and spirit with the PWD Act. 

The Situation of Persons With Disability (PWD) is quite pathetic in DU. Despite sporadic attempts through demonstrations and dharnas by some activists to move the issue of disability, policy makers in DU remain indifferent and insensitive towards the needs and aspirations of the disabled. Does the available structure of DU provide the disabled the much needed space of learning and excelling? Does the University system respect their right to access resources and the larger environment? There is a need to analyse the impact of the recent change in the examination system of DU through semesterisation which has an adverse impact on the people belonging to the marginalized communities. Being a premier academic institution in India, its role and involvement in academic reform becomes very crucial. 

Delhi University off late has started following the policy of 3 % reservation for PWD during admissions. Now there are a good number of students with disability studying in different courses in DU. Until 2007 April there were very few teachers under this category. It is only after a court case filed by an NGO called Sambhavana, that the Colleges and Departments of DU were forced to implement the 3 % reservation for disabled in teaching posts. This has resulted in the appointment of more than 150 teachers in different Colleges and Departments. 

Let us first explore DU in terms of the structures for the disabled. The situation at DU is pretty grim. Except for very few Colleges, there is no provision for ramps. The available ramps are either dangerously steep which doesn’t enable a person to walk on it or they are not connecting the crucial places in the premises. The libraries are usually totally inaccessible both in terms of structural connectivity and reading material in inaccessible form. There is no provision for accessible toilets for the disabled. The class rooms are not at all disabled-friendly. Almost every class has a platform which denies the wheelchair user the right to access it and teach effectively. It also poses hurdles for the visually impaired teacher preventing free movement in the class. The sitting arrangement in the class also impedes the mobility of the disabled teachers and students. The reason for all this, lies in the apathetic attitude of the policymakers who to not to include the disabled in the decision-making process. They are not consulted when new buildings are constructed or renovated. For instance, the Arts Faculty became more inaccessible and full of obstacles for the disabled after the renovation. Recently under the new master plan, yellow tactiles have been built into the footpaths all over the DU campus. But even then there are constant obstacles. All this reflects the lack of understanding and appreciation of the needs of the disabled. 

Secondly, The UGC provides a grant of 5 lakhs for making the buildings and premises of the Colleges disabled-friendly. However, the grant which comes from UGC for this purpose is often not spent by many Colleges. Such gross violations occur due to absence of social audits which let these Colleges go scot free. Therefore it is important that social auditing should begin in the Colleges of DU. The UGC being the supervisory body should start undertaking this important task. 

Thirdly, centralized schemes are not implemented. There is a provision for the setting up of an Enabling Unit in every College by the UGC. In most Colleges this is absent. This not only denies representation of the interests and issues of the disabled, but also a huge chunk of money which is allocated for this purpose is not spent. 

Apart from the structural barriers, DU is inaccessible socially and pedagogically. There is paucity of reading material in accessible form for the visually challenged. The Equal Opportunity Cell(EOC) which was established around five years ago has made some progress in providing the reading material in accessible format but it is not sufficient to meet the requirements of even the students of some courses. The situation of the hearing impaired is also pretty grim. They are excluded altogether from the benefit of the higher education. There is no facility of the sign language interpreter for them. One may easily say that their existence in the regular class is far from the imagination. 

The introduction of the semester system at the undergraduate level will harm the interests of the marginalized sections and will result in the accentuation of inequalities and alienation. With the semester system the session will commence in July and the first round of exams will be conducted in November. Many scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, and Other Backward Class students who are not from a public school background, would require more time to adjust in the univer­sity environment because of sociocultural reasons. This is equally true for the students who lack English reading and writing skills. Even if they are examined in Hindi, they need more time to read works in English, which is indispensable for them in the present scenario. This will eliminate and reject many students without English proficiency and ultimately ensure the scuttling of reservation in educational institutions. Further, there is a considerable number of disabled stu­dents, particularly visually challenged, who need to prepare every reading first in an accessible format (audio, e-text or Braille) before actually studying it. Due to lack of the resources (screen reader, scanner with OCR) in several Colleges, the conditions become more hostile for them and they are deprived of the basic facility of accessing the library and to read the concerned books and journals. 

It is important to remember that students will now appear for a university examination within a few weeks of admission rather than nine months later. If all the students categories mentioned here (which actually constitute the majority of the student body) have to face exams on entering college, and if they do not perform as well as their more privileged classmates (which is very likely), it will reproduce inequality at the very beginning of their college experience. This may have an adverse impact on the performance, morale and achievements of these students. Thus we can say with utmost conviction that semesterisation alienates the university system from the most vulnerable sections of society and makes the process of learning more hostile for them. 

The politics of exclusion in DU continues to dominate its structure and resources. It does not enable a large section of its population to access resources and the process of learning for them thus becomes redundant. Their involvement in teaching and learning is really thwarted by the disabling conditions in this premier institution. Their participation in decision making process is still a far reality as they are not represented in the important bodies. There is no course in the syllabus of the DU which has any component on disability. A Disability Study Centre, on the model of Women Study Centre could be a great way to encourage studies in the field of disability. All this requires a firm and consistent struggle against the apathy and indifference towards the disabled. Till this happens we cannot imagine a progressive and democratic Delhi University where inequalities of all forms could be bridged and a culture of inclusive participation which is the basis of empowerment could be evolved. 
Dr. Nikhil Jain teaches Political Science at Dayal Singh College, University of Delhi. He is also a member of the Academic Council of University of Delhi.


Post a Comment