With the 2024 general elections underway in India, disability rights activists are advocating for disabled people to be viewed as a “decisive voting block”, urging citizens to vote for “inclusivity and disability rights” and for political parties to engage with disabled people in their electoral promises.

The manifestos of the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) parties include such promises. For example, both parties have proposed to include disability as grounds for discrimination in the Constitution, with the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, fully implemented. However, it is essential to recognise that the education of children with disabilities is a broader concern for democratic participation.

Existing education policies view inclusive education as children with and without disabilities studying in the same school. Yet, inclusive education is not just the presence of disabled young people in school. It is a reflection of democracy: how can we ensure access, achievement, and participation of all children within educational systems?

Education policies reflect how nations respond to differences, and what the nation is willing to do to ensure equal rights and opportunities. Inclusive education concerns how we envision schools and classrooms for all children to reflect their aspirations. It is about providing youth with tools to challenge injustice, and encouraging them to be critical, questioning citizens regardless of ability, gender, caste, class, religion, sexuality, language and geographical location.

India’s education system boasts universal primary enrollment, yet we don’t know how many disabled children are in or out of school. In December, the Union government revealed that disabled people have been invisibilised by not counting them anymore.

A related problem is how disability is defined and measured across surveys and departments. For instance, some estimates indicate 40 million to 90 million children with disabilities in India, while others estimate 7.8 million. However, only 2.1 million disabled children are estimated to be enrolled, indicating that over 40% of disabled children have never attended school.

The inability, reluctance, and resignation to not counting disabled people challenge the commitment to education, and thereby, democracy. What does it mean for Indian democracy if segregation, othering and exclusion are accepted?

Yet, counting is insufficient without appropriate learning conditions. What is the point of identifying disabled children if the outcome is segregation (separating disabled children from their peers) or neglect (not equipping teachers)? Even though 2.1 million disabled childre may be enrolled in schools, retention rates are low and dropout rates are high. Research persistently demonstrates that large numbers of children, not only those with disabilities, are neither staying nor learning at school.

Credit: Anton Sukhinov via Unsplash.

There are many reasons for this: poor school and classroom infrastructure, experiences of poverty, lack of teacher preparedness, rigid curricula, lack of diverse pedagogical practices, negative beliefs held by teachers about marginalised children, societal norms of exclusion, and the disproportionate focus on measuring narrowly defined learning outcomes.

While the Congress manifesto makes commendable mentions of strengthening efforts toward disability inclusion, it promotes special education instead of full inclusion. The survival of a participatory, inclusive democracy requires reimagining meaningful school education, particularly for children with disabilities. We need to recognise and strengthen existing bodies of teacher education, particularly District Institutes of Educational Training, as crucial players in achieving inclusion through programmes for all teachers.

This would mean distancing from purely “special” provisions. Instead, it requires a commitment to education policies and budgets that prioritise inclusive education for all children. We offer the following questions on the Why, What, Where, and How of education to parties to redress this situation:

Why? To consider the goals of education. Apart from learning to read, write, and count, the goals of education are to develop critical thinking, imagination, emotions, and relationships, care for the community and the environment, play, joy, and participation in decision-making.

What? To consider the curriculum or what is taught at school and how it is evaluated. Is the curriculum flexible to address every child’s needs, abilities, aspirations, and contexts? Do teachers have the capabilities to adapt the curriculum and assess learning to account for different needs and aspirations?

Where? To consider the physical and relational spaces in schools. Are schools well-equipped, accessible, and adequately funded for all children to learn together? Do teachers feel valued and share mutually respectful and collaborative relationships with colleagues, their students, and families? Children, families, and teachers develop a sense of belonging when schools enable active participation.

How? To consider pedagogical processes or how children are taught. Is it only rote memorisation and exam performance or do we use multimodal approaches? Are classroom processes arbitrarily decided or involve the participation of children and their families?

Such questions orient our educational system to care for all children. Disability inclusion in education ensures the inclusion of all. Let this be a litmus test for our democracy.

Rashmi Rangarajan is a postdoctoral researcher at the HEP Vaud in Lausanne, Switzerland, who identifies as disabled/neurodivergent and studies inclusive and equitable education by drawing on the experiences and views of young people and their communities in different geographical contexts, like India and Switzerland.

Tanushree Sarkar is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, University of Missouri, USA, who identifies as disabled and studies the relationship between teachers, policy, and pedagogy for inclusive and social justice education in the global South.