Volume 3 Issue 12 - June 15, 2005
Admission seekers with disabilities stranded at Delhi University’s “rundown gate”
The disability sector is watching anxiously as another academic year commences in the country’s top university. If the number of students with disability declines further, as has happened in the past year, the blame will squarely lie upon the Delhi University administration that has yet again failed to initiate even basic changes for greater accessibility, examines Parvinder Singh
Education is empowering. It is the most formidable means of breaking free from barriers of economic and social backwardness. These are the lofty ideals that brought Chandra Prakash to the gates of Delhi University (D.U.). But his first encounter with the institution's admission machinery has sobered him down. The 20-year-old son of a daily-wage labourer, and himself a television mechanic, has scored 58 per cent in his board exams through correspondence. However, what distinguishes his struggle for education is not his fight against poverty but his physical disability.
“Why do they have to set up an assistance booth for disabled candidates in such an obscure corner? Do you expect anyone to find his or her way through? It is disheartening. One has to depend on helpful students to get here,” says Prakash, panting after a long and winding search for the only counter for students with disabilities in the University.
Prakash wants to be a teacher. He vowed that someday he would do more than mere token service to make at least admission booth accessible to students with disabilities.
He is not alone; there are many disabled students who shared this ordeal of half-baked attempts by the university authorities to engage in eyewash in the name of making the institution accessible.
A picture is worth a thousand words. This dictum cannot be applied more suitably than to the sight one is greeted with while looking for the assistance booth for students with disabilities. The meandering path to the booth runs through a store yard onto a passage partially covered by a pile of desks. But that is half the journey to get ‘assistance’. One has to first find a way through a run-down gate, with bricks and construction material littered around, and cross a metal barricade, which for non-disabled is a mere hop. But a wheelchair user may well have to defy laws of physics to do so.
During our rounds of the office of the Dean of Student’s Welfare, we found several visually impaired and physically disabled students getting the taste of apathy of inaccessibility of buildings and structures.
We met orthopaedically disabled Karan Kamra and his mother trying to negotiate their way through the smashed gate. “They could have made the assistance booth more accessible,” he said, after making his way with great difficulty through a small opening in an iron gate outside the Dean’s office. Karan, who hails from Dhanbad in Bihar, has scored an impressive 91.5 per cent in commerce stream.
We also met a group of young men with visual impairment, looking for the assistance booth. One of them, Mohammad Sohail, who is seeking admission, said, “We have been moving around for several hours in this heat and after having almost given up we called for help from a passer-by who turned out to be a student and brought us here.” But his struggle had just begun, and he had a fair idea of it on the very first day. “I will now have to ask a thousand questions to fill up the forms as I cannot read the information brochure. Why can they not have it inscribed in Braille?”
Every student with disability that we met complained of having had to travel so far because there is just one assistance booth, whereas for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students there are four across the city.
It has been close to a decade since the country has had The Disability Act, 1995 that makes it mandatory for educational institutions to remove structural barriers and arrange for facilities to allow students with disability free and equal access to education. Ten years is a long time, and even now not much seems to be moving towards even basic implementation of the provisions in The Disability Act.
DU has three per cent seats reserved for students applying under the ‘disabled’ category that translates roughly into 900 seats in various colleges and courses. But the figures indicate that the situation on the ground has been getting worse for students with disabilities as their numbers have been declining over the years.A total of 411 students with disabilities applied for admission under the category in 2003, while in the year 2004, 329 applied and got admitted to the university.
The answers for this decline are not hard to find. But DU has chosen to remain oblivious to the problems of students with disabilities. A case in point is the following statement by Dean Student’s Welfare (D.S.W.), S. K. Vij that appeared in the press recently. “There are not too many students in this category (disabled) and they will have to travel similar distances once they are admitted. We will consider if enough students approach us with a demand,” Vij said this when the issue of single assistance counter was brought to notice.
Sohail may not see admission information appear in Braille in the near future, as the D.S.W seems to be underestimating the urgency of having information available to all. “Printing the information bulletin or the forms in Braille is not possible,” Vij was quoted as saying by daily newspaper. The apathy is startling as 250 students with visual impairment have applied for admissions so far. Even cases of near blunders in filling up admission forms, as a visually impaired candidate has to rely on volunteers, have not made Vij admit the pressing need for material in Braille.
Visually impaired Ram Avtar’s case exemplifies what can go wrong in absence of an information bulletin published in Braille. ‘‘I said B.A. (Pass), but the person (volunteer) wrote something else. Thankfully the person at the counter corrected it, but I am worried as to whether it will be accepted,’’ Avtar was quoted as saying.
Another case that deserves mention in this context is that of Nipun Malhotra, a wheelchair user, who despite having scored 92 per cent in commerce stream, decided to forgo his plans for seeking admission in DU. Nipun’s mother and father shared with the media their anxiety over the pathetic state of access in top colleges at a press conference organised by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.). The disability advocacy organisation’s Executive Director Javed Abidi drew attention to an access audit that revealed the national dimension of the problem of accessibility that plagues institutions of higher education. Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.) has also filed in a P.I.L. in Delhi High Court to make D.U. disabled friendly.
Despite the problem of access staring in the face, and a strong advocacy campaign, D.U. authorities refuse to change and address the issue in a serious manner. A pertinent and indicative example of the university’s non-serious approach is it’s recent announcement of a software programme that, the authorities claim, will allow “special students get admission to the college most accessible.” Not only does this software appear to be an attempt by the university authorities to dilute the issue of access, it also clearly points to the attitude of seclusion whereby options for students with disabilities will be limited significantly.
Abidi had rubbished this software by saying that the issue of access required serious groundwork and implementation of existing laws and not “rocket science”. In fact when we approached the D.S.W office, officials told us that the software was still in a planning phase and is being prepared by a private firm. They refused to give the name, citing official reasons. In such a scenario it becomes difficult to accept the university’s claims of seriousness in creating accessible and equal academic environment for students with disability.
During our conversation with student volunteers manning a relatively deserted looking assistance booth, we were told that not even a single wheelchair using student had come in for information. They said that a substantial number of seats were likely to go unclaimed this year too. It is nothing short of an irony that as the nation marches ahead a section of youth lags behind due to lack of access to education that they are constitutionally entitled to.
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