Over the last month, courts in India have made major observations related to disability and education. One, by the Supreme Court, has disappointed persons with disabilities in its understanding that this group should be further isolated from mainstream society. But another observation by the Madras High Court gave the disabled sector reason to celebrate by noting that mainstream society should be more perceptive and responsive to persons with disabilities.

The Supreme Court’s observation in a public interest litigation filed through Advocate Prashant Shukla claiming lack of sufficient special education teachers in Uttar Pradesh could have far reaching consequences. The court said, “We are of the prima facie view that the children with special needs have to be imparted education not only by special teachers but there have to be special schools for them.” It added, “It is impossible to think that the children who are disabled or suffer from any kind of disability or who are mentally challenged can be included in the mainstream schools for getting an education.”

I do feel that this observation got the spirit of the PIL completely wrong. The solution to a lack of special education teachers is more training and colleges to train special education teachers.

As someone with a disability who went to a normal school, I was really saddened to learn that the Supreme Court intended to close doors to a normal life for persons with disabilities. The Supreme Court’s observation is wrong on three levels – legally, for the disabled and for society.

The recently enacted Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 says, “The appropriate government and the local authorities shall endeavour that all educational institutions funded or recognised by them provide inclusive education to children with disabilities”.

In addition, India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24 of the convention is dedicated to inclusive education. “States parties recognise the right of persons with disabilities to education,” it says. “With a view to realising this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, states parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.”

Besides this, India’s Right to Education Act states that 25% of seats in private schools should be reserved for poor and disadvantaged groups. Needless to say, persons with disabilities are among the disadvantageous groups.

Persons with disabilities need to be included in the mainstream. After all, they need to go to college, earn degrees, learn skills and eventually acquire jobs. They cannot be protected forever, so why not let them flourish as part of the mainstream?

Teaching everyone about disability

Interestingly, the other recent judicial observation on disability and education by the Madras High Court has given the disability sector much reason for cheer. The court observed that the “state needs to have disability education so that mainstream society becomes more sensitive towards people with disabilities.” It also said that “Educating others on people with disabilities leads to tolerance, empathy, and respect.”

Let us also recognise that interactions with persons with disabilities have led to major technological breakthroughs that are being used by all able bodied people today. Text messaging was originally created for the deaf and voice overs on mobile phones were originally created to help the blind. Input from people with disabilities clearly encourages innovation and is yet another reason not to put this group in a silo separate from the mainstream.

The observations of the two courts represent two world views about persons with disabilities between which we need to choose. One is a belief in homogenisation that does not respect uniqueness of individuals as well as in the segregation of persons with disabilities. The other is an inclusive approach beneficial to disabled persons and others.

A Supreme Court observation, when it is translated into a judgement, becomes case law and sets the precedent. I do hope that the court reverses this observation on the special education needs of the disabled while passing the final judgement. After all, society is not homogenous and people with disabilities in classrooms will enrich school life for children.

The writer, born with arthrogryposis, went to a regular school. He is an alumnus of St Stephen’s College, Delhi School of Economics and the Indian School of Business.