by: Qamar Abbas

April 5, 2019

NOBODY is sure what the issue is with Nabila. She joined the kindergarten class of a local low-fee private school a few months ago. She does not speak. She does not respond to questions. It is not clear if she hears properly. She does not interact with others. She has to be accompanied by an adult when she needs to go around anywhere in the school, whether to the washroom or outdoors during recess.

Nabila’s parents do not have the resources to have any diagnostic testing done. Her mother, who brought Nabila to school, insisted that she be admitted. The teachers/principal who have interacted with Nabila’s mother feel that she is not really worried about having Nabila tested for an underlying condition (perhaps due to non-availability of resources), nor does she seem particularly concerned about her education, ability and potential to learn. Her primary concern seems to be related to having some form of childcare during the day for Nabila so that she can focus her attention on housework and other chores. This school is the only option for Nabila’s mother.

The school also feels it does not have the resources to a) have Nabila diagnosed, b) have teachers trained in special needs education (the school had only three children with disabilities), and c) adapt the curriculum and mode of instruction to support children with disabilities. So, though the administration has allowed Nabila to come to school, it has not been able to do anything for her other than providing a place where she can be supervised. Other children have not been able to interact with Nabila. The school is fine with having Nabila in class for these early years, but feels it will have to ask her mother to make alternative arrangements soon, within a couple of years.

Khadija has a hearing problem. She also attends a low-fee school located close to where she lives. Though her parents knew that Khadija could not hear when they brought her to school for enrolment and told the school about it, they also mentioned that they have never had Khadija’s hearing problem diagnosed. They also feel that they do not have the resources to pay for any diagnostics and/or intervention (such as a hearing aid) if one is needed.

Nabila and Khadija are in trouble. They are at risk of dropping out of school.

Khadija comes to school regularly. Other children in the class are aware of Khadija’s impairment, and try to be as cooperative as they can be — but communication, through signs that have evolved in the process of class interaction, is still difficult. Khadija seems to enjoy the company of other children and her time in school, but she is not learning a whole lot.

The school feels it does not have any resources to spend on having Khadija diagnosed. It also does not have the resources to have the teachers trained in interacting with children with special needs. The school has only four or five children, it feels, who have visible/perceptible physical/cognitive impairments. The school does not want to spare any resources for such small numbers.

Khadija’s teacher, who does not know sign language, has spent quite a bit of time with her mother. This has allowed her to understand how Khadija and her mother communicate: a combination of signs and facial expressions they have evolved/developed over time. So her teacher can now have a basic level of communication with Khadija, which allows her to keep Khadija calm and somewhat involved in class activity through the day.

Nabila and Khadija are in trouble. They are at risk of dropping out of the education system. They got enrolled — which is difficult enough coming from challenged economic and social sections of society, let alone facing physical and/or cognitive impairments. But they are not learning anything, and the schools they are in are not able to help them.

Is the state not responsible for the education and welfare of every child? Does Article 25-A of the Constitution, guaranteeing every child the right to an education, not apply to children with disabilities? Have we not signed international conventions on the rights of children with disabilities? Do none of these commitments matter?

Pakistan does have departments for ‘special education’ in all provinces. But these departments are small, underfunded and restricted to providing services through a small number of institutions. Special education departments do not even have any interaction with the government’s mainstream education departments. They have absolutely nothing to do with private schools. Who, then, is going to look after the Khadijas and Nabilas of Pakistan? Are they children of a lesser god?

If parents cannot afford diagnostic tests for children who exhibit signs of disabilities, there should be a referral system where the state steps in to pay for it. There should be provision for schools, both state and low-fee private schools, to receive some resources from the state in order to provide for the special needs of children with disabilities who are attending regular schools. The principle of ‘least restrictive environment’ should apply: children should be taught in the least restrictive environment possible and should be moved to more restrictive settings only if the interest of the child requires that.

We need to move towards creating an inclusive society. Whatever the nature of the diversity we have among our children, and the learning challenges that they may face, they have to live with each other in this society. We have to ensure we prepare all children for this. The state has a very important role to play here. As far as our obligations towards children with disabilities are concerned, we have not even scratched the surface yet. It is time to change that.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019