Mumbai: The mystery of the disappearing disabled students

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Parents, activists are worried over the extremely high dropout rate among students with special needs, with nearly 80% of such children in Std X not making it to junior college, according to figures released by the District Information System for Education

At a time when people are lauding the introduction of landmark laws like the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which is meant to aid all children between the ages of 6 and 14, a voiceless minority seems to have been completely ignored.

In a scathing indictment of the education system and educational institutes in Maharashtra, figures released by the District Information System for Education (DISE) have revealed very high dropout rates among students with various forms of disability as they move from primary to secondary to higher secondary education.

In 2013-14, while there was a big difference in the number of students with disabilities in Std IX (25,274) and Std X (19,043), things get really worrying when you consider the number that make it to junior college. According to the DISE figures, only 4,226 students with disabilities were studying in Std XI in schools and junior colleges across the state, and the number fell further to 3,802 in Std XII.

Hurdles abound
While the RTE Act clearly mentions that all children have the right to study in a regular school, activists and parents say the figures highlighted in the DISE reports over the years (see tables) prove that the situation on the ground is markedly different.

“Many parents who put their children through mainstream schooling often feel lost after a certain point because there are only so many options available for our kids after they finish class X or XII. Most parents opt for open schooling for their kids,” said Parul Kumtha from Forum For Autism (FFA), a parent self-help group.

Activists say they have repeatedly been drawing attention towards the lack of proper infrastructure in the state education system, which is still not open to children with various forms of disability, but to no avail. They add that except for a handful of schools in Mumbai that are open to students with special needs, most schools have shut their doors to them.

“As if the lack of awareness among schools and their closed mindsets were not bad enough, even the state board does not mention all forms of disability in its rules and regulations. Most times, we end up fighting to prove the disability of our children,” said Bhakti Barve, mother of a student with special needs.

She added that many schools are also focused on achieving a cent-percent result in their class X board examinations, due to which many children with special needs who are found struggling with academics are ignored and failed purposely. “Parents know that there’ll be no use fighting the system, so they end up moving their children to open school,” added Barve.

Lengthy process
Activists also pointed out that a really long process has to be followed to get the certificates needed to prove the disability of a student.

In case of physical disabilities, the concessions given by the state board are awarded almost immediately, but in case of learning disabilities, the student has to be tested at a government approved-testing centre and get a certificate from there first.

“Many parents are not even aware of how lengthy the process is, and children often end up losing an academic year because of this. These children often find it difficult to get back to studies after a break and eventually opt for open schooling,” said Kumtha from FFA.

Board speak
The Maharashtra State Board for Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (MSBSHSE) has clearly stated that only those students who can provide documents approved by government authorities to prove their disability can avail concessions during board exams.

“We cannot give concessions to students unless they have documentary proof of their problem. We get thousands of applications every year for concessions and end up rejecting a few because of lack of proper documents. However, we do make exceptions in some cases,” said a senior official from the state board.

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