By Pooja Pandey and Avinash Reddy Pichhili
Despite strong legislations like the Right to Education Act (RTE Act) and the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (RPWD) Act, Children with Disabilities (CWDs) remain to be one of the most marginalized categories of children in the Indian education system, with only 52.2 percent of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) of ages 7 years (and above) being literate and only 19.3 percent of PWDs completing secondary education and above.
A crucial determinant of the success of an inclusive education system is the presence of trained and sensitized cadre of educators, who can cater to the needs of all students, including CWDs.
India’s sorry state of affairs is evident through UNESCO’s latest findings which highlight that only 0.22 percent of the teachers across India have special needs education training which makes inclusive education a far cry. The report also pinpoints that the overall teacher workforce in India is at a deficit of over 1 million teachers and the deficit is expected to grow even further, in many levels and areas of education, including special education.
A recent judgment by the Supreme Court of India in Rajneesh Kumar Pandey and Ors. v Union of India assesses the illegalities in the employment of special educators and offers a positive step in the direction of mitigating this issue. The petitioners prayers primarily revolved around ensuring adherence to a just Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) for CWDs and creation of permanent positions for special educators in all schools, both of which have a significant bearing on working towards inclusive education.
From Segregation to Inclusion
In essence, the court took due cognizance of the challenges that exist for special educators and their employment, acknowledged the job uncertainty caused by the contractual nature of employment, and reflected on its negative effects on equal access to education for CWDs.
Through the course of this case, the court underwent a much-needed transition from glorifying segregation in education, to advocating necessary steps to be undertaken for the inclusion of CWDs in the education system, specifically in terms of adherence to PTR.
In October 2017, the court emphasised the provision of special schools in the State of UP, noting that it is impossible to include CWDs in mainstream schools. In the next hearing, the counsel for petitioners drew the court’s attention to ‘inclusive education’ as defined in Section 2(m) of the RPWD Act, which states that it is a system where students with and without disabilities learn together and the teaching and learning are suitably adapted based on their learning needs.
The counsel also drew the attention of the court to Section 16 of the Act which provides the ‘duty of educational institutions’ to ensure non-discrimination in admission processes, provide equal opportunities in all educational and recreational activities, provide individualised or other support to “maximise academic and social development consistent with the goal of full Inclusion”, among other duties.
Noting the same, the court further traced back relevant legislations and schemes such as The Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992, Scheme for Integrated Education of the Disabled Children, 1992, Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Inclusive Education of the Disabled at Secondary Stage (IEDSS). The court highlighted that the PTR, as specified by IEDSS, needed to be 1:5 at the secondary level of education.
It then referred to the RTE Act 2009 (amended in 2012), specifically Section 19 and Section 25 of the Act, which prescribed norms and standards for schools, including maintaining PTR. However, the court noted that these norms and standards were not amended to deal with the special needs of CWDs and emphasised that the PTR for CWDs would necessarily have to be different from the prescribed PTR in the RTE Act.
The court, on multiple occasions, specifically suggested that the central government should amend the norms and standards as provided in the Schedule of the RTE Act, in order to prescribe PTR in both general and special schools by taking into consideration the needs of CWDs.
The precarious position of special educators in India
While the judgement provides a cursory sense of the issue at hand, i.e. permanent employment of special educators and maintaining PTR, the woes of special educators in the framework of inclusive education run further and deeper.
Despite endorsement by key education campaigns like Samagra Shiksha Abhiyaan (SMSA) towards more inclusive education models, in practice, the responsibility of teaching CWDs falls upon special educators.
This separate ‘cadre’ of teachers is certified and regulated by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). RCI certified special educators can get employed in different government and private schooling systems - inclusive, special, open, or home-based schooling systems. They perform different roles such as that of classroom teachers, resource teachers, itinerant teachers, or cross-disability teacher facilitators (UNESCO, 2019). Some of the key challenges faced by special educators in India include:
1. Shortage of meaningful employment opportunities leading to a shortage of special education workforce in India. For example, under the SMSA Scheme, only 21,646 special educators have been appointed, reflecting an insufficient ratio of one special educator for every 60 to 70 CWDs spread across a single block.
2. Even when employed, special educators receive low salaries, face pay disparities, incur out-of-pocket expenditures, lack job benefits, have contractual employment status, and lack job reputation.
To exemplify, the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018/19, highlights that 73 percent of special educators working in the private sector have no contract and draw an average monthly salary of ₹3,148. Similarly, in the government sector, 80 percent of the special educators reported having no contracts. Distressing work conditions are also reported by Resource Persons (often employed as itinerant teachers at the cluster or block-level under government schemes like SMSA) who complained of a range of administrative responsibilities in addition to core-teaching (like surveying, identifying and certifying CWDs, ensuring timely provision of government welfare schemes, conducting training programs for parents, etc.).
3. Limitations of the special educator training regime are highlighted by the fact that the special educators are often trained only in handling single disabilities and lack the skill to meet the needs of children with other disabilities, especially in an inclusive education setting. Assessments have reflected a need to operationalize cross-disability training for both special as well as general educators.
4. Special educators report a complex nature of dealing with the RCI which requires them to not just be certified and registered with the institutions but also get re-registered with RCI every 5 years (through the Continuing Rehabilitation Education(CRE) programmes). The renewal process results in a financial burden on special educators and is often delayed, becoming an impediment to their meaningful employment.
Vidhi’s recent study has also exhibited a shift in the mindset of special educators who are increasingly losing interest in taking full-time courses on special education, as it does not offer lucrative job opportunities.
In fact, there is a growing preference towards either opting for shorter courses/degrees in special education or teaching as regular teachers or leaving the special education field altogether. This exhibits a growing discontentment from the field of special education and needs urgent attention, for its potential to hamper the education and inclusion of CWDs.
Directives issued by the court
Some of the challenges faced by the special educators, as described above, could be addressed if the directives of the court, in this case, are implemented by the concerned authorities. The directives issued are detailed as follows:
1. Notify separate PTR for CWDs and create permanent posts for special educators in all schools
Noting that the NEP 2020, though provides for elaborate provisions to ensure inclusive education, does not prescribe any PTR for CWDs, the court directed the authorities to adhere to the PTR as prescribed in Ms. Reshma Parveen vs. The Director, Directorate of Education (“1:8 for children with Cerebral Palsy, Visual impairment and hearing impairment, 1:5 for children with intellectual disability, ASD and Specific learning disabilities; and 1:2 for DeafBlind and a combination of two or more of the seven disabilities mentioned above”), as a stopgap arrangement until the Central government notifies separate PTR for CWDs.
The court also directed the authorities to create permanent posts for special teachers and initiate the appointment process for such vacancies. Further, by linking the education and participation rights of CWDs to PTR, the court was able to emphasise the importance of creating and maintaining enough permanent posts for special educators in all schools.
2. Compulsory training and sensitisation for the staff and teachers of general schools
Echoing Section 17 of the RPWD Act, the court also directed that the staff and teachers of all schools be provided compulsory training and sensitisation to cater to the needs of the CWDs. In essence, this directive can prove to be an instrumental step towards ensuring that CWDs are able to meaningfully access education in all schools, and not just special schools.
3. Merge unviable special schools with relatively viable special schools
The court’s directive to merge unviable special schools with relatively viable special schools in the neighbourhood raises grave accessibility concerns, especially considering that the number of special schools available is already low, and schools in general have not yet been adequately equipped to cater to CWDs in terms of infrastructure, pedagogy, teaching-learning material, adequate training to all teachers, and adequate appointment of special teachers. In the absence of sufficient safeguards, this directive could result in lack of access to education to CWDs who are currently enrolled in the so-called ‘unviable special schools’.
Increasing budgetary allocations for the education of CWDs can facilitate the training of more special educators, training of the teachers in all schools, and can ensure the availability of adequate financial resources to cater to the needs of CWDs who are still enrolled in such ‘unviable’ special schools.
In addition, the RCI should be made accountable for improving the credibility and work conditions of special educators in the country. The process of certification, training, and re-registration must also be made conducive for special educators.
This judgment is a laudable step in bringing much-needed attention to the cause of special educators and highlights their impact on providing meaningful access to education for CWDs. The case for a just PTR for inclusive education has a direct bearing on the availability and deployment of an increased and high-quality workforce of special educators in the country.
While the judgment will definitely provide the nudge for action to both the Central and State government authorities in a time bound manner, one also needs to be cognizant of other actors who must be consulted in order to make the implementation a success. The need is for more empirical evidence highlighting the on-ground situation of special educators and involving them in decision making which has long-lasting effects on their futures as educators in India.
Pooja Pandey is a Research Fellow working in the area of education at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Avinash Reddy Pichhili is a Project Fellow with Education Team at Vidhi.