Volume 1 Issue 5 - November 01, 2003

Are Delhi's universities disabled friendly?

In an earlier issue, we had revealed how inaccessible five premier colleges in Delhi were. It has been five years since the University Grants Commission, the nodal authority for most Indian universities, has announced special schemes for enabling a barrier-free disabled-friendly environment. However, Delhi's universities are still unaware of it, Sudeshna Banerjee finds out.

Is it a crime to be disabled in India? Maybe yes, because one has to pay a heavy penalty for being disabled. Things like getting basic education or going to college seem next to impossible for most disabled children. Sad but true - barely 2 per cent of the country's total disabled population, which is about 70 million, can avail of any form of education.

Even capital cities such as Delhi are not equipped to handle the situation. Recently, a survey conducted by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People along with HT Horizons, of five colleges under Delhi University, found that none of the colleges were barrier-free or even had a disabled-friendly usable toilet. (See DNIS Feature story, 'Delhi colleges not accessible for disabled students', September 15, 2003.)

Picture of steps at SRCC

Disability News and Information Service (DNIS) spoke to the registrars and people incharge of students welfare of five universities of Delhi, namely Delhi University (DU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI), Jamia Hamdard and Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU) to find their level of disabled-friendliness. The result: none of the five universities could provide a total barrier-free education environment.

This is seven years after The Disability Act 1995 was implemented, and five years after the University Grants Commission (UGC), the nodal authority for most Indian universities, has come out with special schemes enabling a barrier-free disabled-friendly environment at universities.

Way back in 1998, during the Ninth Five Year Plan, the UGC came out with two special schemes - Teacher Preparation in Special Education (TEPSE) and Higher Education for Persons with Special Needs (HEPSN) - to create a barrier-free education system.

As per the HEPSN scheme, the UGC aimed at: encouraging equal education opportunities for disabled students pursuing higher education; enabling teacher preparation programmes in the field of special education; and creating awareness and sensitisation among other staff about needs of people with disabilities.

As per the scheme, the UGC provides a maximum of Rs 2 lakh per year, per institute, towards the purchase of books, journals, special aids and appliances for special education teacher preparation courses.

The scheme also calls for setting up of disability units for creating awareness on disability. A budget allocation of Rs 1.6 lakh has been allocated for each disability unit per annum. It was also proposed that a minimum of 10 disability units would be established in various universities and colleges during the Ninth Plan period, with a total budget allocation of Rs 64 lakh.

It encourages universities to acquire 'special facilities' like barrier-free toilets, set up ramps and rails, the UGC can make a one-time grant of up to Rs 10 lakh per university.

Moreover, a one-time grant worth Rs 5 lakh is given for special equipment and devises for disabled people. The scheme also has provisions for fellowships for meritorious disabled students pursuing higher education.

The only thing is, implementation looks far from reality. Very little funds have been utilised by the universities so far. It is understood only 20 universities applied for the scheme. There are about 365 universities in the country and none of them are barrier-free.

In addition, a standing committee had been formed and it had been decided that periodic sub-committee meetings would be held to assess the scheme and its implementation. Many chairmen have come and left the UGC ever since. The sub-committee has met once in all that time.

UGC has done little to publicise the schemes; shockingly, many universities are not even aware of them. The UGC was criticised for its shortsightedness. The situation still prevails.

Picture of a ramp in the JNU library. The ramp is at a dangerous gradient

So far, except JNU, no university has a disabled-friendly toilet - a basic necessity for anybody attending school.

While JMI Assistant Registrar S.M.A. Naqvi, who is in charge of SC/ST and persons with disability unit of the university, found it newsworthy to know about these two schemes, Jamia Hamdard Registrar S.H. Hasan admitted his complete ignorance about the existence of any such scheme.

The new buildings of Jamia Hamdard, however, have ramps for disabled students.

Although JMI's executive body has implemented 3 per cent reservation for disabled persons under The Disability Act 1995, after checking the records it was found that only 1 per cent of the students enrolled in the university are physically disabled and only two lecturers from the disabled category have been recruited so far.

Picture of the unnavigable gate to the office of DU's Dean of Student Welfare

The situation is equally dismal in DU. Although the university has a full-fledged unit for social welfare, most colleges within the university are not aware of any UGC scheme. The university office is also not disabled-friendly. Hema Raghavan, Dean, Students' Welfare Offic, earlier admitted that UGC does not have funds enough to pay for teachers' salaries, let alone for a disabled-friendly toilet.

Nobody from the UGC was available for comments.

JNU and IGNOU seemed to be most disabled-friendly among all the universities of Delhi.

Although IGNOU is an autonomous university and does not fall under the UGC's purview, most of its buildings have a natural ramped entrance. Even the library has a ramp leading to the main entrance. IGNOU has tied up with NGOs at various stages to provide distance education to disabled students, explained Prabha Chawla, Director for women's empowerment project of IGNOU.

The university has started therapeutic courses on disability for parents and family members of disabled people through its distance education modules.

JNU, which falls under the UGC, has an Equal Opportunities Office to cater to the needs of disabled students. The university has ramps at various buildings. However, there are no signages that state the presence of ramps. A newcomer, if not assisted, can have a tough time getting there.

The libraries are, however, well equipped with disabled-friendly computers and cassettes and both the staff members and students seemed to be aware of the situation.

Tulsiram, Incharge, Equal Opportunities Office maintained that while efforts are being made, a lot still needs to be done to make JNU a barrier-free university.

However, many professors admitted that although JNU has recruited staff under the disability quota, it has failed to give them permanent jobs even after many years of service. It is understood that as many as 10 disabled telephone operators do not have regular jobs.

Professor Karna, who heads the documentation centre of the School of International Studies, and also happens to be a disabled person, expressed his anguish over the lack of sensitivity among people for the rights of disabled people.

"Although many hostels are being made disabled-friendly, the basic attitude of the UGC needs to change towards disabled staff members. Many people, despite putting in years of services, do not have regular jobs."

After visiting all the universities, one thought that emerged was that if JNU and IGNOU were better equipped for disabled students compared to the others, would it be right to comment, "At least something is better than nothing," and remain myopic about others' rights since they do not impact us?

Maybe it will take quite a while before our education system and policy-makers realise this simple but essential fact.

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