Employment and Education for people with visual impairments: Taking stock of shortfalls

By Revathi Sampath Kumaran*

Employment: Going beyond platitudes

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court: In 1993, on a petition filed by the National Federation for the Blind, the apex court struck down a rule that disqualified a candidate from the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) if she/ he could not write the entrance exam to the civil services in their own hand. This opened the door for candidates with visual impairments to sit for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam.

Interestingly, this month also marks the first anniversary of another landmark event for people with visual challenges: In February last year seven successful candidates of the civil services examination were placed as officers in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and allied services after three years of struggle through courts and the corridors of power. All seven candidates, with various levels of visual impairment, had cleared the UPSC exam in 2008. Incredibly, they had to fight for three years to get a posting that they had actually earned.

The insensitivity evident in the inflexible rules that led to the incidents mentioned above are by no means exceptional. The Society for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies (SDRS), New Delhi, undertook an evaluative study in 2008 to understand the impact of the People With Disabilities Act of 1995 on employment of persons with disabilities in India’s public sector. [Employment of Persons With Disabilities in Public Sectors in India: An Evaluation Study with Special Reference to Persons With Disabilities Act 1995] Significantly, a majority of the respondents (30.5%) said lack of political and administrative will power was the major reason, next only to lack of literacy (35.9%), for the failure of various policy measures to translate into jobs for people with disabilities. Only five per cent of the respondents felt societal attitudes (split under diverse categories such as discriminatory attitudes and paternalistic attitudes) prevented them from being gainfully employed.

The SDRS study also cites a World Bank Report of 2003 to say that a comparison of Census data over the decade of 1991-2001 shows that the rate of employment of people with disabilities actually fell, from 43% in 1991, to 34% of people with disabilities in 2001. In addition, the placement rate of the 42 special employment exchanges and the 41 special cells for people with disabilities (within general employment exchanges) is an abysmal 0.9% and 0.7% respectively [ILO’s India Country Profile, March 2003: Employment of People With Disabilities: The Impact of Legislation (Asia & the Pacific)].

All of this throws a question mark over the attitude of the administration towards empowerment of people with disabilities and also brings into dubiety the impact of liberalization as well as the technological revolution post-1991 on people with disabilities.

Whereas there is poor implementation of the statute that mandates that 1% of the government jobs be reserved for people with visual impairments, not unoften, private sector companies are known to use the employment they provide to people with disabilities as a corporate social responsibility badge, though they discriminate against workers with disabilities when it comes to pay packages. Though there is no statutory obligation on the private sector to provide employment to people with disabilities, the PWD Act of 1995 provides for an incentive policy for them to move towards the goal of 5% employment in the private sector. However, as the SDRS study observes, since two-thirds of the employment in the regulated sector is in the public sector, it is necessary to move towards fulfilling the statutory obligation with respect to government jobs for people with disabilities.

Not only has there been visible apathy in fulfilling statutory commitments, there is also little in the way of trickle-down effect for people with visual impairments through various social sector schemes. In December 2011, the All India Confederation of the Blind published the findings of an impact study it had undertaken to evaluate the extent of inclusion of people with visual impairments in employment oriented schemes sponsored by the central government. [Inclusion Of The Visually Impaired In Representative Employment Oriented Government Schemes—An Impact Study]. The initiatives that AICB considered were: the National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation’s (NHFDC) assistance to its target population, and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS). NHFDC was set up in 1997 to provide financial assistance to persons with disabilities, with a view to encouraging them to become gainfully self-employed. MNREGS, with a massive outlay of 400,000 million rupees is intended to reduce poverty by guaranteeing 100 days of employment for wages to every rural household whose members wish to benefit from the scheme.

“It was natural to expect that the above two schemes with their broad mandates and targets, would impact the self-employment and rural employment prospects of the visually impaired to a significant extent”, notes the study, while recording its disappointment that “the coverage of the visually impaired is critically low” in both initiatives. In addition, the data provided by the nodal agencies was found discrepant with reality in many instances. In the case of NHFDC, which provided a list of 927 blind and low vision beneficiaries from 19 states, it was noticed that only 3% of the total beneficiaries were visually impaired. Besides, the loan was often not used for the purpose for which it was taken, and several beneficiaries reported that they keenly felt the absence of guidance from the nodal agency, which helped them with documentation but not with choice of vocation or with training. In MNREGS, not only was the number of low vision beneficiaries insignificant, the records were blatantly compromised in many instances: to cite just two examples, in Karnataka, out of the 44 beneficiaries listed as visually impaired, 43 were surveyed by AIFB and none of them had any problems with their vision. In Punjab, 1193 persons were listed as low vision/ blind. The AIFB team surveyed 602 of them and found none of them to have visual impairments.

Commenting on the slow progress in expanding opportunities for disabled people in India, a 2007 World Bank Report (People with disabilities in India: from commitments to outcomes) notes that this “results in substantial losses to people with disabilities themselves, and to society and the economy at large in terms of under-developed human capital, loss of output from productive disabled people, and impacts on households and communities.”

Education: Ground Realities

Education is the critical factor that determines the trajectory a person’s life takes, regardless of accidents of birth and other imponderables. According to a World Bank study (2007), of all categories, children with disabilities are the worst off when it comes to schooling. The numbers of disabled children who are out of school is five and a half times the general population’s rate, which is worse than even the Scheduled Tribes, considered to be the most disadvantaged social category. Even in progressive states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where overall enrolment is high, a major proportion of the out of school children are those who are with disabilities (27% in Kerala; 33% in Tamil Nadu). Besides, children with disabilities rarely progress beyond primary school. An undated UGC document detailing guidelines for universities and educational institutions that wish to facilitate training of teachers and provision of higher education for people with disabilities, states: “The Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 indicates that disabled persons should have access to education at all levels. Though service to disabled children in India is more than 100 years old, the coverage of these children in the formal school system is not even 5 per cent.”

The official statistics of the government of India (Table 1) show that of the 265,248 students who are enrolled in primary school (classes I to V), less than 50% make it to secondary school (classes VI to VIII). Less than 10% hang on till high school (classes IX and X) and only 5,238 students, i.e. 2% of those who entered school, go on to complete higher secondary (classes XI and XII).  The figures are distressing and deplorable; they speak of an appalling lack of commitment to domestic proclamations of purpose as well as to various international treaties to which India is a signatory (UN’s Millennium Development Goals and UNCRPD, among others). At a recent conference organized by the Delhi Ophthalmological Society, it was disclosed that prevalence of childhood blindness in India is 0.8/1000 children in the <16 years age group, which accounts for a population of about 300,000 blind children in the country.

Table 1: All India enrolment figures for students with visual impairments: genderwise and classwise (2007-08)

In Classes I-V

In Classes VI-VIII

Boys

Girls

Total

Boys

Girls

Total

143,214 122,034 265,248 64,454 54,881 119,335

Classes IX-X

Classes XI-XII

11,446 9,448 20,894 3,144 2,094 5,238

Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India.

Note: Adapted from tables showing statewise enrolment of children with special needs: students with visual impairments.

The aforementioned UGC document cites a report of the Rehabilitation Council of India that mentions more than 100,000 teachers will be needed in the next ten years to cater to the educational needs of disabled children in Indian schools. To meet this massive shortage of school teachers trained in inclusive education, the UGC has said it will “support selected university departments and colleges of education in the country to offer special education, with financial assistance available under the programme of Integrated Education for Disabled Children by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, or within the available resources of the UGC.” The question is: Are there any takers for the UGC’s proposed action plan? A study by UN [Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010, Reaching the marginalized] cites a 2007 presentation of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in which an official of the ministry underlined the inadequacy in teacher availability by pointing out that currently there is one inclusive education resource teacher for 182 children with special needs, whereas the desired ratio is one teacher for every eight children! An unacceptable twenty-five times over shortfall!

“Personal, social and environmental factors are all at play in turning physical or mental impairments into disabilities. That is, the attitudes and institutions of society are seen to have significant impacts on the life opportunities of people with disabilities,” notes a World Bank report [2007]. Few words could capture the plight of the people with disabilities in India better than the World Bank’s generic observation. A study by NCPEDP in 2004 almost a decade after the passing of the PWD Act found that a fifth of the schools surveyed admitted that they would not take in students with disabilities, and another 18% of the schools were ignorant of the existence of the PWD Act itself. Besides, few schools employed special educators and for most, the needs of children with disabilities were simply beyond their ken [cited in Disability, Economic Globalization and Privatization: A Case Study of India by Vanmala Hiranandani and Deepa Sonpal, 2010].

The apathy in higher education institutions was no less, with a fifth of the 119 universities surveyed by NCPEDP openly admitting to not following the reservation of 3% rule for persons with disabilities. Moreover, only 16 of the 119 universities were providing assistive software to students with low vision, and still fewer were having books in Braille [See survey of management graduates in InSight Vol.1 (10)].

Almost a century ago, Rabindranath Tagore said: “Low literacy and employment rates, and widespread social stigma are making disabled people among the most excluded in Indian Society. The problem is not how to wipe out the differences but how to unite with the differences intact”. Our summary review of recent studies indicates that India has to move much faster if we are to make Tagore’s words irrelevant by the time this century runs out.

References:

  1. Employment of People With Disabilities: The Impact of Legislation (Asia & the Pacific): India Country Profile (2003). International Labour Organization: InFocus Programme on Skills, Knowledge and Employability.
  2. Employment of Persons with Disabilities in Public Sectors in India‐ Emerging Issues and Trends (2008). Society for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies, New Delhi. Commissioned by Planning Commission, Govt. of India.
  3. Guidelines Facilities [sic] for Differently Abled Persons [ud]. University Grants Commission website. Available at: http://oldwebsite.ugc.ac.in/financialsupport/guideline_15.html. Accessed January 2013.
  4. Inclusion Of The Visually Impaired In Representative Employment Oriented Government Schemes—An Impact Study (2011). All India Confederation of the Blind, New Delhi.
  5. Nidhi Singhal (2009). ‘Education of Children With Disabilities in India’. Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010, Reaching the marginalized: UNESCO.
  6. People with disabilities in India: from commitments to outcomes (2007). World Bank: Human Development Unit, South Asia Region.
  7. Vanmala Hiranandani and Deepa Sonpal (2010). Disability, Economic Globalization and Privatization: A Case Study of India. Disabilities Studies Quarterly, Vol. 30. No. 3/4.

*Published in Retina India’s publication, InSight, February 2013.

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