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Blind to the Barriers

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 14:47 -- nikita.jain

Educational institutions need to open their eyes to the world of the disabled and make that much-needed effort to be inclusive, something they are utterly lacking in now

Reservations under the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, and claims of barrier free campus in colleges and universities, notwithstanding, higher education still is a difficult proposition for differently-abled students of Odisha. The situation is not much different even in cities like Chennai and Hyderabad of states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, which sees more development than Odisha.

Odisha has 1400-odd plus two colleges, 702 degree colleges and eight universities, but none of these are barrier-free. A deep rooted apathy exists towards providing special facilities to students with disabilities in universities and colleges.

As Manjulata Panda, a visually-impaired student of Utkal University who is doing her PhD in Political Science, points out, “Even in some comparatively new buildings within the university, there are no special facilities to cater to our needs. The huge university campus should also provide tactile markers so that the visually challenged persons can be guided through. Signage and toilets for physically challenged people also need to be worked out.”

Time and again, students like Manjulata have alleged that a large part of their college and university campuses continue to be inaccessible even as voices for ‘inclusive education’ and ‘mainstreaming’ have been getting stronger in recent times. Though some of the premier colleges in Odisha have ramps and Braille text books, there are several gaps that need to be plugged.

Apparently, although there is one college for hearing-impaired students of Odisha, namely Satyabhama Devi College for Hearing Impaired in Bhubaneswar, there is no such college for blind students.

The Department of Higher Education (DHE), Government of Odisha, has time and again given directions for accessible libraries and laboratories and disabled friendly study materials, audio visual aids and computers with JAWS (Job Access with Speech) software for the visually impaired, which reads out text on the computer screen, but rarely any of the orders are implemented. There is a wide gap in policy formulation and implementation.

Although higher education institutions should have equal opportunity cells, as mandated by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to look into problems faced by disabled students, many of them are non-functional. Two of the most prominent colleges in Odisha enrolling the maximum number of students are BJB Autonomous College and RD Women’s College. While RD Women’s College does not have an equal opportunity cell, the one at BJB Autonomous College has been defunct for a long time now.

At the 2009 Chancellor's Conference on Higher Education, then Chancellor of Odisha Universities MC Bhandare had advocated for installation of special screen reading software in all colleges and universities for the benefit of students who are visually impaired. This is yet to be implemented.

Disability activists say that currently most colleges even in the state capital of Bhubaneswar does not have sufficient Braille books in their libraries, hostel facilities, modern assistive technology and facilities for participation in college sports and games for this category of students. Students with disabilities already face daily difficulties like travel to college/university, as private buses do not respect the disability concessions that are to be provided. What’s more the disabled students are eligible for exemptions in admission and examination fee, as directed by DHE, but even that is not being implemented across all colleges and universities.

Students with disability also rue the fact that they are not supported with special coaching centres on the lines of those provided for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students.

Requirement of scribes

Apathy of authorities is evident in the fact that even small measures, like providing scribes, are not taken. Colleges are supposed to provide scribes to help students with disabilities, who are unable to write their answers. But in many cases, scribes are given to them by the Department of Higher Education only at the last minute. As a result, students do not get enough time to acclimatise with their scribes and this affects their prospects of faring well in the examinations. While this is the case in cities like Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, the situation is grimmer in district headquarters towns and other semi-urban areas.

Sanyas Behera, former secretary of Odisha Association for Blind (OAB) and a disability rights activist, said the biggest problem today as far as scribes are concerned is that the universities are yet to adopt the scribe policy under the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities that was framed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Except for the Ravenshaw University at Cuttack, none of the Government-funded universities in Odisha have an independent scribe policy. Though there is also a provision of additional 30 minutes of writing time for disabled students under the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, this is being denied on the ground of insufficient staff and non-availability of invigilators beyond a stipulated time.

Besides, the State Government pays a paltry amount to these scribes, which does not serve as incentive enough for them to take up the roles and write for disabled students. At present, the Government pays `15 for a single sitting at the Plus Two level. So, if the examination consists of five sittings, a scribe is eligible to get `75. At the Plus Three level, there is no provision of even the meagre incentive. The UGC, however, pays `1,000 per sitting to the scribes.

Attitudinal Problems

Many a times, managements and faculty are not cooperative when it comes to following the guidelines to support students with disability, as it affects their convenience. In a study conducted last year by Swabhiman, a leading voluntary organisation working for the causes of the disabled in Odisha, with support of Women & Child Development Department, Government of Odisha, it was found that a large number of students do not enjoy their time in college. The total number of students participating in the study was 585 and it was found that as against 35.7 per cent (pc) who enjoy going to college, 64.3 pc do not enjoy attending college, as their basic requirements are not being met.

Colleges do not have disabled-friendly toilets or accessible drinking water taps, despite these being violations of the PWD Act, 1995. When asked, 37.5 pc of the students said they required physical access to the building and transport and 26.4 pc required Braille materials. Besides, 9.2 pc wanted large print question papers, 4.3 pc sought audio materials and 15.6 pc asked for printed class notes. The rest 7 pc wanted accessible laboratories, personalised teaching, more attention from teachers, extra practical training hours and coaching for entrance examinations.

Only 12.5 pc of the students received the educational aid that they are entitled to from colleges. While 61.7 pc said they had not been given the fee exemptions, 25.8 pc said they were unaware of the fact that their college should provide them educational support. Only 9 pc of students receive educational scholarships, 34 pc do not get any such benefit.

“Disability is a huge area. Just creating a few ramps does not ensure accessibility. There has to be an elevator, a disabled-friendly toilet and a library with Braille books and advanced software for students with disabilities,” said Sruti Mohapatra, disability rights activist, who conducted the study.

A student, who has a disability that affects her mobility, joined BCom in a reputed Bhubaneswar-based college last year, which refused to shift her classes from the second floor to the ground floor. The reason cited by the college authorities was that the teachers were finding it difficult to move between floors due to the lack of a lift facility. The student prefers to remain anonymous.

In Hyderabad too, the situation begs improvement. VC Veera Raghav, Hyderabad chapter president, National Federation for Blind, says, “The situation of blind hostels in the city is pathetic. There are six blind hostels here. Four of them are being operated in rented buildings, and those buildings do not have ramp-facilities. This is resulting in serious injuries to the blind students. Despite making numerous requests to the authorities, nothing has changed.”

In Chennai, even umbrella institutions like Anna University and The University of Madras had hardly any ramps in the common areas — canteens, classes, etc. Reasons cited are that these institutes have decades-old buildings, and it is difficult to alter them to make them barrier-free.

Disability Studies Centres

Despite a plethora of studies being carried out, the area of disability studies still remains unexplored in Odisha. It is ignored in the curricula of universities and colleges. Apparently, none of the higher education institutions in Odisha have departments or centres for disability studies for promoting academic activities on disability related issues.

Such centres are crucial for teaching specially designed programmes to develop human resources in the field of disability. “As a result, talented students who want to opt for academic, research-oriented and professional careers in disability studies have to go outside the State to do so. This is the reason we do not have sufficient number of faculty members who are trained in disability studies here,” said Kasturi Mohapatra, State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities.

In fact, none of the government colleges have special educators to take charge of disabled students.

Sanyas added there is no point providing mere access to educational institutions. “The most important is having teachers specialised for the job. A minimum of two pc of teachers in educational institutions should be specialised in dealing with students with disabilities,” he said.

UGC schemes unutilised

The UGC had started a scheme of assistance to universities/colleges to facilitate Teacher Preparation in Special Education (TEPSE) and Higher Education for Persons with Special Needs (Differently-abled Persons) (HEPSN) during the Ninth Five-Year Plan, keeping in view the need to provide special education programmes as well as infrastructure to differently-abled persons. The panel had stated that infrastructure needs to be designed in a manner to enable them easy access classrooms, laboratories, toilets, etc.

But findings of the Swabhiman field study entitled, ‘A profile of Disability in Odisha — Trends, Development and Dynamics’ put forth some disturbing facts. According to the report, no university has applied for HEPSN and TEPSE funds from the UGC, except Utkal University. Utkal availed `8,78,000 for the HEPSN programme.

University Vice-Chancellor PK Sahoo said with this fund, two rooms with one attached toilet was constructed to run the HEPSN programme in the Psychology Department. Named Samarthya, the building houses three computer systems to help visually impaired students. Besides, ramps with side support railings have also been constructed to provide access to the library, hospital, main office and departments on the university premises.

At North Odisha University, the authorities have requested private agencies to provide access to facilities for differently-abled students and has also spent funds on procuring special learning and assessment devices in 2010-11.

Spending on Infrastructure

Except for Ravenshaw and Utkal University, none of the Government-run universities have taken any major steps to make their campuses disabled-friendly. Ravenshaw which has already constructed ramps, disabled-friendly toilets and elevators, will soon get a Braille printing press on its campus to address the problem of shortage of textbooks for blind students. As part of its ongoing measures for a disabled-friendly campus, it has installed Dux Berry, the latest software that can convert written text into audio format, at the library at a cost of `4 lakh. The Braille printing unit would cost `50 lakh, said Priyabrat Majhi, co-ordinator of the equal opportunity cell at Ravenshaw University.

DHE’s initiative

Meanwhile, the DHE has finally decided to make colleges and universities inclusive, at a recent meeting. The move has been long overdue and the department is now looking at translating its intention towards the differently-abled from paper to reality. It has directed the Vice-Chancellors of all the State-Government funded universities and regional directors of education to make classrooms in colleges and universities accessible to students with disabilities with immediate effect. Accordingly, a directive on accessible classrooms in all colleges and universities, disabled friendly reading materials in libraries and audio visual equipment and computers with JAWS software for the blind, has been sent to VCs, regional directors of education and chairman of CHSE, informed Gagan Dhal, Secretary, Higher Education Department.

These facilities will be made available to blind students who use Braille for studies, hearing and speech impaired students and orthopaedic impaired students with disability of more than 75 per cent with immediate effect. The cost of the infrastructure changes and upgradation would be borne by the institutions and no Government help would be provided.

K Sarada Devi, Director of the Disabled Welfare and Senior Citizens, Government of Andhra Pradesh, says, “For providing a barrier-free environment, the State Government is inviting requests from the educational institutions for installing lifts, ramps and for designing specialised wash-rooms for the disabled. After receiving the requests, we forward them to the Central Government to get the grants under the scheme titled Scheme for Implementation of Persons with Disables (SIPDA). Based on recommendations from Osmania University, we have installed lifts in its premises recently. It is the responsibility of the particular organisation to communicate the grievances of their disabled-students to get the facilities. However, not many are approaching us.”

Dr S Rajendran, professor of pathology, Sri Ramachandra University,  where students with mobility issues are assisted with ramps and elevators and other measures, says, “Some areas in general that require improvements are not on campus, but in the city at large. Travelling in buses is difficult with no kneeling system, and no assigned car parking spaces are provided in offices or colleges. Our pavements and roads are not at all disabled-friendly. We also need to generate more jobs for the disabled. But compared to the scenario 10 years ago, I think we have moved forward.”

However, there are some examples of best practices in the city too. IIT-Madras, Stella Maris College for Women and Sri Ramachandra University fall in this category. LS Ganesh, dean of students,  IIT-Madras, says, “We have to look at the efforts from two angles, learning needs and mobility and living needs. There is a range of disabilities and we have tried to address most of them, especially those with respect to mobility. It’s important to keep the dignity of disabled students intact while we provide them support mechanisms.”

He elaborates that vision-impaired students are given support in the form of reading software, like JAWS, and scribes for examinations. “For those who have mobility issues, we have a Student Welfare Fund that we tap into to fund battery-operated scooters (around `55,000) and motorised wheelchairs that can help them get around the campus. All the buildings are disabled-friendly — from ramps to lifts installed in all buildings to special rooms on the ground floors of hostels with separate bathrooms,” he adds.

IIT-M is also known to encourage disabled students to take part in sports. The institute’s aquatics zone is a prime example of this inclusive mentality, where they have a ramp built into the swimming pool. IIT-M also hosted the Indo-Pakistan bilateral Blind Cricket Series, where players used cricket balls that made sounds.

At Stella Maris College, Chennai, they have installed ramps for most buildings and lifts are also available. They have installed software like JAWS, Super Nova Access Suite Version 13.03 — Dolphin and Openbook software for visually challenges girls to read. Student volunteers help out these students during internals and scribes are brought in for the main exams.

“The Students Union of the academic year 2013-14 had adopted the theme, ‘Sensitivity towards the differently-abled’ and have formed the Best Buddy system to help out their friends and worked on workshops to sensitise those on campus. Tuition and hostel fee waivers are also offered to some students,” says D Thilagavathi Joseph, Dean of Students, Stella Maris College.

source: New Indian Express

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