New Delhi: Manjula Rath was eight years old, the eldest among her siblings, when her father decided to leave.

“Looking at four blind children every day and knowing he couldn’t do anything about it, he was sure we had no future," she says matter-of-factly.

Because Rath and her siblings could see a little in the beginning, there seemed some hope of recovery. But with their vision deteriorating over time, it was clear they would never be able to see. All four, three girls and a boy, have retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, genetic disorder that gradually breaks down cells in the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye, known as retina.

Until she was seven, Rath could read in sunlight or in a well-lit room. But as the disease progressed, it became impossible for her to read or recognize faces, making her one of over 2.3 million visually impaired women in India.

Children with disabilities rarely progress beyond primary education. An estimated 90% of children with disabilities in the developing world do not go to school. In India, 38% of children aged between 6 and 13 with disabilities were found to be out of school, according to a January 2014 UNICEF report. An earlier study by the World Bank noted that children with disabilities are five times more likely to be out of school than children belonging to scheduled castes or scheduled tribes.

No school means both more social alienation from the community and limited employment opportunities. Yet, Rath managed to buck the trend.

It has been anything but an easy ride. When her father left, the joint family also withdrew its support. It adopted the attitude of “jab beta nahin, toh bahu kaise (when the son is gone, how can there be a daughter-in-law)", she says. So Rath’s mother, who had never worked before, began supporting the family, sure of only one thing: she wanted her children educated so that they could be independent, unlike many families in India, for whom a disabled woman is a “burden" and “fits well into the stereotype of passivity and dependency", as a 2007 report done by the Society for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies, for the National Commission for Women, states.

“There is gender discrepancy in education in this country. This multiplies in the case of a disabled girl. She is the least of the priorities of her parents when it comes to education because they assume no one will marry her and she will never get a job," says Asha Hans of the Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, a voluntary organization working for the disabled.

A nationwide survey on the status of disabled students in leading Indian colleges, institutes and universities, conducted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in 2015, found that disabled students comprise a mere half percentage point of the total of over 1.5 million students enrolled in the top 150 colleges across the country. Of these 8,449 disabled students, an overwhelming 74.08% were men and only 22.07 % were women. The streams with maximum enrolment of students with visual impairment, like Rath, were science (57%), arts (55%) and commerce (42%).

Rath’s journey started in a ‘normal’ school, as she calls it. The other 24 students in her class had no disability. Even though she could read and write in bright sunlight at that age, the teacher chose to ignore her. “She didn’t even acknowledge me as a human being, leave alone a student," she says. During roll call, for instance, her name was skipped, as if she was invisible.

Leaping to Learn: Part III

After primary school, Rath managed to get admission to the President Estate School in New Delhi. It was here that two teachers gave her special education lessons during free periods. Rath learnt to read Braille. Illiteracy levels are high across all categories of disability, but mostly so for children with visual, multiple and mental disabilities. One out of three blind people in the world lives in India, according to the Blind Foundation of India. There are approximately two million blind children in India and only 5% receive any education.

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 focuses on inclusive education, stating that all students, whether disabled or otherwise, must have access to education in mainstream schools and colleges. But with discrimination entrenched in the social fabric, an inflexible curriculum, bullying by classmates and the paucity of trained teachers, educating the disabled becomes all the more challenging.

For disabled girls, attaining education seems like an insurmountable task, battling not just the lack of infrastructure for all differently-abled students but additional stigmatization, and, very often, the attitude of parents. But as Maya Kalyanpur in a 2008 article in the International Journal of Inclusive Education writes, there is “a tendency to be politically correct by taking on current trends in the west without a real or common understanding of their meaning, resulting in dilution of service quality".

Leaping to Learn: Part II

“Special schools should be there for persons with disability till the fifth standard. After that, inclusive education should be the priority but only after the school is well-prepared. That isn’t happening. Disabled students are still put in the front row. They still sit in classrooms during sports and library periods. All books are still not in Braille," Rath says.

Rath and her siblings stayed back after school till late in the evening, transcribing lessons into Braille. “We had National Service Scheme students in the class. I made them read chapters to me… recorded it and transcribed them into Braille," she says. Obviously, there was no time for entertainment or socializing or play.

While Braille is indispensable for the blind, such textbooks are hard to find, expensive and, worse, not many teachers know how to teach it. Apart from this, many schools and colleges do not have disabled-friendly toilets or accessible drinking water taps, despite these being violations of the Persons With Disabilities Act, 1995.

“Teachers’ lack of ability to teach mathematics and science to the blind and extreme rigidity of using visuals and practicals for teaching these subjects is posing a big challenge to the visually impaired of this country," says George Abraham, founding chairman of the World Blind Cricket Council and the Cricket Association for the Blind in India.

With science and math out as viable options, most visually impaired students are restricted to studying humanities, arts or music. “No one wants to think out of the box. But if you want, you can come up with different, innovative ways," Abraham says.

Rath’s problems continued even after she completed her schooling and went on to acquire first a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. It was while she was doing her BA that she started working in a municipal school in order to supplement the family income. In addition to juggling classes with her job, she had to stay late in the library to take notes.

She started with teaching in a primary school, then college, but always dreamt of becoming a university professor. It was only in 2008 that Rath applied and got a job in Delhi University as an associate professor.

“When I was in school, it was very difficult for a disabled student to study. Today, because of technology, if someone really wants to do well in life, she can," Rath says. “What we still don’t have is acceptability in society for the disabled to be seen as normal human beings."

Are policymakers listening?

For the first three parts of the series, go to www.livemint.com

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