Addressing disability in formal education

Aisha Sarwari

I was invited to speak at an event in a 5-star hotel on inclusivity of women in public space. My co-panelist was a disability rights activist, a young woman in an electric wheelchair. When she arrived to speak she had to be lifted by four able-bodied men onto a ramp-less stage in front of the entire audience. She was there to talk about access for disability and yet she had none to the arena. The irony was stark and visually deafening. Yet, no one called it out at that event.

Similarly, no one calls out the deafening silence on how Pakistan’s education system is failing children with disabilities. Even if these children show up at school, there is no ramp. In the region, Pakistan stands the worst out of already faltering countries. Disabled out-of-school children, as a percentage of total primary school-age population in Pakistan is 34.4 percent according to the 1998 census. Experts say, since then, things have slid down like mercury on a playground slide.

Pakistan has signed off on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) but like most else it is party to; few people care to read what was agreed upon after photo-ops are over. The teachers certainly are not capacitated enough to define and carry out an inclusive curriculum for disabled children in their classrooms.

This is chiefly because education in Pakistan is already overburdened and already excludes as many as 25 million children who are not attending school. According to the Alif Ailaan campaign to end Pakistan’s education emergency, these numbers define a gargantuan challenge for those students who have disabilities.

In April 2018, I carried out an exposure visit to one of the 1,550 Girls Community Schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s remote areas so I could assess some students with disabilities. I was reminded of the disabled panelist at the inclusion conference when I saw two teachers carrying a disabled 9-year-old girl, called Mehek from a dark dingy classroom to where I sat in the main courtyard.

On their way to bringing Mehek to have me assess her learning environment, the teachers carrying her almost tripped over on the uneven unpaved floor of the non-purpose built school. By the nonchalant reaction of the young child, it seemed like this had happened several times before and it didn’t always end as unceremoniously as it did then.

Mehek was clearly uncomfortable with being carried around without consent. She bowed her head throughout my conversation with her. She looked down at her lap and only smiled at the end when I asked her about candy. She wore the Sunday best her mother had dressed her in – red embroidered shalwar kameez.  She had polio as a young child and that left all her limbs severely deformed. She also had developmental challenges. I was told before Mehek came to school a year ago, she was bedridden, but she can now recognise numbers 1-10.

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These may not be formal government schools, but they do play a great role in enabling children with disabilities to enroll because of the proximity to their homes and the informal community model support at school. At these schools, unlike more formal government ones across Pakistan, there is no pity approach to teaching disabled children. Schools like these have a rights-based approach instead.

These community schools, rather than segregate special needs children, actually integrate them within the regular classroom setup. This allows for special needs children to be normalised and mainstreamed. More than anything else this readies them for more challenging societal roles like employment and public travel.

Impactful transformation will only happen if there is significant and consistent investment in school infrastructure and in conscientious teacher training. We don’t want students to be carried around in an undignified way where they have no control over their movement and comfort. We want to give them their loss of body integrity back.

Despite the success of these community school models, the formal education models in Pakistan fall terribly short. Falling short is not just a social and a cultural failure, but an economic disadvantage that policymakers refuse to be alarmed by.

Recent estimates by UNESCO suggest that as many as 1.4 million Pakistani children with disabilities are left without access to either inclusive or special schools. There are sadly only 330 special education schools in Islamabad, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

There is a dearth of studies, but one World Bank study of the workforce found that among employed people with disabilities, only 27% had completed primary school, compared to 42% without disabilities. Those excluded from the workforce because of disabilities and access issues lead to economic losses of as much as 4.9 to 6.3% of Pakistan’s GDP.

There is a very unfortunate pecking order in addressing disability challenges, in which students with intellectual disabilities are almost always entirely omitted from solutions. Take Dyslexia for instance; there are very few provisions for understanding or even catering to the needs of children that cannot read because of an inherent inability to interpret letters as they are visually. There are estimated 12 million children with dyslexia in Pakistan. Hardly any schools successfully implement programs that test and train students to overcome the reading challenge.

Article 25 guarantees education to all Pakistani children, but it seems to define only those as children who can walk themselves to class, those who can pick up reading instantly, those who can solve math within seconds, those who can hear instruction without hearing aids and those who have no challenge reciting tongue twisters. Education for all, is not defined for silicone dolls genetically engineered to perfection. It is for the children to whom nature bestowed a flawed scar. As Maulana Rumi said, it is the scars where the light enters.  The light enters through the country’s Meheks.

We need to reform the education system to stop being cookie-cutter and be more invested in equity.

The writer is a columnist and co-founder of the Women’s Advancement Hub

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