Activists Slam Modi Government's Plan for Central University for Persons With Disabilities

Disability activists insist the move will lead to further exclusion of those with disabilities.

New Delhi: Human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar’s recent announcement  about the government’s decision to set up a special central university to cater to the needs of students with disabilities across the country has not gone down well with disability rights activists. They believe that this is an “an exclusionary move which will further segregate people with disabilities” and that it would be better if more opportunities are created for ensuring that persons with disabilities (PwDs) get mainstreamed by living and learning with the non-disabled.

While delivering the convocation address at the Dr Shakuntala Mishra Rehabilitation University in Lucknow, Javadekar had spoken about how he had “discussed the prospect of a central university for differently-abled with Union minister for social justice and empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot”. He had also observed that the Centre was sensitive to the needs of the disabled and this was why Modi had thought of referring to them as ‘divyang‘ (divine) instead of ‘viklang’ (disabled).

Though Javadekar also spoke about how new-age education in India was inclusive in nature and about “giving differently-abled education along with others in the same classroom”, his announcement of a central university for the disabled appeared out of place in this context.

RTI and disability rights activist Satendra Singh, who is also an associate professor of physiology at the University College of Medical Science and GTB Hospital in Delhi, cautioned that the idea of an “​exclusive central varsity is primitive thinking”.

Stating that London’s Wellcome Trust had invited him to give a keynote on diversity 3.0, which is a diversity and inclusion framework spanning from diversity 1.0 (diversity as a fairness issue competing with excellence) to diversity 3.0 (which integrates diversity into the core of an institution and acknowledges that diverse people, perspectives and backgrounds do not compete with excellence, but instead drive it), Singh said the ministry’s “thinking is not even diversity 1.0.

Speaking from his experience of being founding coordinator of Enabling Unit (a UGC scheme), which is the first instance of a medical college having such a unit under UGC guidelines, Singh said that rather than spending on a university for PwDs, the ministry should “spend on its central sector programme, the National Initiative on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Higher Education, as the allocation for this programme has remained constant at Rs 2 crore for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 .”

Singh said that to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the world’s nations are committed to a plan that mandates disaggregation of data based on disability. “Unfortunately, this demand of the disability sector is never met.”

Singh has filed RTIs ​with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and MHRD on SDG4 (quality education) demanding to know

  • the primary and secondary school net attendance ratio for children with disabilities,
  • the percentage of teachers in service who have received in-service training in the last 12 months to teach students with special educational needs and
  • the percentage of schools (primary, lower and upper secondary) with adapted infrastructure and materials for students with disabilities,

but received only a single statement reply from the MHRD “that the information sought is not maintained in the section”.

Accessibility consultant and co-founder of Samarthyam, Anjlee Agrawal, also criticised the move to have a central university for PwDs. She said that “what is actually required are universities for PwDs which are inclusive as we want PwDs to be mainstreamed. We do not want the government to seclude and exclude them by providing special schools, colleges, universities that discriminate against them and take away the opportunity from them to get mainstreamed in the society and to be part of the society. If both disabled and non-disabled are together, then the learning is more, inclusion is in a real way and non-disabled people also come to learn about the needs of the PwDs, the etiquette and communication facilities required to mingle with them.”

Agarwal said she has always believed in equality. “A special university,” she said, “is like an institution meant for ‘you’ rather than ‘us’. So the difference arises and people feel it becomes about them and there is exclusion. Growing together, learning together and being together is the essence of life.”

Ideally, Agarwal who has done numerous access audits for the transport sector and also various buildings and premises, said a university for PwDs “should be a completely accessible university by all means and it should also be inclusive by all means in terms of learning and teaching environment and also the physical environment.”

“So when you have the combination of all three, it conforms to what the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says and also what is laid down by the new Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. These lay down that the society or the state do not have the right to exclude and provide special measures. Rather there should be universal measures which benefit each and everyone and inclusive set-ups and inclusive communities.”

Dislike of ‘divyang’ nomenclature

The disability rights activists are also saddened by the repeated use of the word ‘divyang’ despite their objection to it. Singh said, “The cliché/metaphor divyang, if systemically incorporated into societal structures, could push persons with disabilities to buy the idea that they are some kind of exception that allows them to be superior, as if they have achieved something. The use of such words would deeply embed the thought that people without disabilities are ‘normal’ and those with disabilities are ‘different’.”

He recalled that he and another rights activist Abha Khetarpal had written in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics that “a language that demeans and isolates can never be ethically correct” and noted “persons with disabilities are not a bunch of just paralysed legs, deaf ears or blind eyes. They are individuals who are whole, living, breathing human beings. No one has the right to put their bodies into the service of inspiring the world without their consent.”

Agarwal said she had also raised a lot of noise against the use of the word ‘divyang’ which literally means divine in Hindi. “So either disability is taken as divine or as some say “aapkay puranay karmon ka phal hai” (It is your penance for deeds of the past). We are saying that to be ‘divine’ you again will have to be excluded. But we just want to be treated as equals and we are only asking for equity as ordinary human beings. We are not asking for any special treatment.”

The central government, disability rights activists believe, is more interested in terminology and has done little to improve implementation of the schemes meant for PwDs. “They have improved sensitivity but the implementation is very low and disability is still not visible. In the built environment, comprising roads and pedestrian environment, we are still ‘apart’ and not ‘a part’,” she said.

Even when it comes to accessibility, Agarwal said, “it is not a mandate by the service providers and builders, including PSUs like National Building Construction Corporation or Engineers India Limited. When we speak to them about accessibility, they say ‘Yes, we are making a ramp’. They have no knowhow on accessibility standards given by the National Building Code. Also, if somebody is not complying then what are the punitive measures the government is taking to ensure compliance? People should know that if they would not comply, there would be fines or even imprisonment.”