The development of any nation depends on the education system that the nation adopts. It is mainly because education is the cornerstone both for personal and national development. Despite the importance attached to education, access to education for persons with disabilities is often elusive, particularly in developing countries. According to UNESCO, 18 percent of children worldwide (and 25 percent of children in South Asia) do not have access to education. Of the estimated 120 to 150 million children with disabilities under the age of 18 around the world, more than 90 percent of those who live in developing countries do not attend school, a statistic which reflects the difficulty that persons with disability have in accessing education.
In Nepal, children with disabilities are less likely to have access to education. While no precise statistics are available, the National Planning Commission and UNICEF’s A Situation Analysis of Disability in Nepal (UNICEF/Nepal, 2001) reported that 68.2 percent of the people they surveyed, with all kinds of disabilities, lacked any formal education. Similarly, a study that I conducted showed that a majority of the persons with hearing impairments did not complete formal education of 10 years: 34 percent completed no more five years and an additional 42.9 percent of participants did not complete more than eight years. A mere 17 percent completed 10 full years of schooling. Similarly, 16.6 percent of participants with visual impairments had given up their education after five years, decreasing to 6.6 percent when looking at participants who did not continue past grade eight. Participants with physical impairments have a similar pattern to those with visual impairments at the pre-college education level: 11.9 percent, 13.4 percent, and 3.1 percent did not continue their education after five years, eight years, and ten years, respectively. Among students without disabilities only 9.2 percent do not continue past the five year mark, and only 18.6 percent stop after ten years (Nepal Department of Education, 2008).
Previous to 1964, Nepalis with disabilities had no real access to education, as there were no schools, either in special or inclusive settings, which could accommodate their individual needs. In 1964, however, education for persons with visual impairments was formally begun in an inclusive setting at the Laboratory School in Kathmandu. Three years later, the first school for persons with hearing impairments was also established in Kathmandu. Similarly, schools for persons with intellectual impairments were established in the 1960s.
For persons with disabilities in Nepal, there are three educational options: integrated schools, special schools, and local schools. Integrated schools are for persons both with and without disabilities, which are able to offer specific resources and facilities to their students with disabilities. Specials schools are specifically for students with hearing impairments, which have appropriate equipment and training to match the students’ educational needs. Local schools are facilities that offer no special resources or support for students with disabilities. Both integrated and special schools have limited capacity. For example, in Kathmandu Valley, there are only three integrated schools, with very small capacities for children with visual impairments and one special school for students with hearing impairments. Nationwide, there are not more than 20 special schools for students with hearing impairments.
Even after five decades of education for persons with disabilities, however, gaining access to schooling can still be prohibitively difficult for them. Despite education’s positive effect on social and economic outcomes, persons with disabilities in Nepal often miss out on these benefits due to several barriers to education. This often causes them to quit; a phenomena which is understudied and poorly understood. The barriers associated with educating persons with disabilities are many: economic, social, attitudinal and physical. Often in daily life, these all work together, erecting a wall that not only blocks people from receiving education, but also deprives society as a whole from a better future.
Because of the strong social stigma accorded to disability, those families perceiving their child’s disability as negative might choose not to educate their children both because of the prevailing belief that such a child would not benefit from education and because of the belief that disability is simply the child’s—and the parents’—fate. In a study by Rousso (2003), to “avoid being ‘shamed’ some families not only deny girls with disabilities’ access to school, but hide them away entirely”. Attitudes toward people with disabilities are centrally important to any effort to reform education provisions because these attitudes are a crucial determinant of educational attainment.
Finally, Understanding a problem is the first step toward solving it; in this sense, raising awareness, in families, communities, and at the government level alike, is potentially the strongest tool for working towards better education and more opportunities for persons with disabilities. Without bringing citizens with disabilities in the mainstream of education of the country, neither can we imagine inclusive development nor can it be sustainable. Since development can only be realised and sustained through proper education, it cannot be achieved at the expense of excluding certain groups.
A number of possible strategies and areas of focus can be suggested in order to increase access to education for persons with disabilities. First and foremost, the government should broaden the educational opportunities for persons with disabilities by increasing funding for education and mobilising the necessary educational resources to assist them. Visible investment in education for children with disabilities is necessary as studies have shown that investment in education for persons with disabilities remarkably improves their quality of life. Since persons with hearing impairments appeared to be at the greatest disadvantage, the government should significantly increase the number of schools for students with hearing impairments, focusing on sign language instruction. Similarly, to address accessibility issues, school infrastructure should be built up to facilitate accessible buildings and adequate transport. New programmes should be implemented, targeting all school-going persons so that every individual with disabilities can benefit from the potential for high returns. Similarly, efforts should be made to dismantle any social and institutional, as well as financial barriers that diminish opportunities or prevent persons with disabilities from enjoying their right to education.
Lamichhane currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tokyo. He is the first Nepali with visual impairments to receive a PhD
(Source: Kathmandu Post)