According to United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), about 263 million youth and children globally, are out of school. Children with Disabilities (CWDs) make the single largest group of these out of school children. Only one-third of children with disabilities in developing countries are able to access schools, while, only half of those enrolled in schools can successfully progress from primary to secondary schools.
According to the World Report on Disability released by the World Health Organization about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. The report indicates that twelve million children in Pakistan have some form of disability. An estimated 50,000-60,000 of CWDs are known to be studying in special education centers and NGO-run special schools, leaving a majority of children with disabilities out of the education system. According to careful estimates, half of the 25 million out of school children in Pakistan are children with disabilities. These children are out of school not because they are unwilling but because regular schools are reluctant to enroll them.
Despite the fact that Article 25-A of the constitution of Pakistan promises free and compulsory primary education to every child between the ages of 5 and 16 years, schools are not prepared to accommodate children with disabilities. In cases where they are accepted, teachers are either reluctant or inept to address educational needs of such children.
Children with Disabilities face multiple layers of discrimination. At the first level, parents often feel a sense of shame, believing that their children’s disabilities are a punishment for their sins and confine them to their houses. If parents are supportive and children with disabilities are able to break this first level of barrier, they have to face discriminatory attitudes and beliefs of society, which often views them as useless, passive individuals. If a child with a disability attempts to enroll in a local school, his dream never comes true because school does not accept him. It is a shame that children with disabilities are out of schools just because our schools are unable to accommodate them in regular classrooms.
Since the 18 th Constitutional Amendment, education is the subject of provinces who are free to make their own educational policies. The responsibility of enrolling all children in schools lies with the provincial governments. However, no serious efforts have been made to establish an enabling education system that welcomes all children regardless of abilities or disabilities. Schools are also ill-equipped to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities. Consequently, over 12 million children are unable to break out the vicious cycle of discrimination, illiteracy and poverty. As a result, the country is lagging behind its targets for Education for All (EFA) and recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The nation cannot afford uneducated future generations. There is no choice but to introduce reforms in education system to make it more child friendly and inclusive for all children despite their abilities. We need an education system that can responds to the needs of all. We require an education system that expresses the obligation to provide every child with quality education in mainstream schools. Provincial governments should pay immediate attention to this critically important issue. Reforms should also be introduced in teachers’ education to build the capacity of teachers so that they can address the educational needs of children with disabilities.
The government should increase budgetary allocations to ensure infrastructural accessibility in schools to create an enabling environment for children with special needs. Similarly, Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) and School Management Committees (SMCs) should be activated to allow parents to remain involved in their children’s progress. Finally, provincial governments should introduce in Inclusive Education Policy (IEP) and devise a subsequent strategy to translate the policy into action. Schools should be ordered to not refuse admission to any child, especially those with special needs. These efforts will contribute towards an education system that is accessible for all children and may lead the country towards an inclusive society, which respects diversity and encourages everyone to participate in meaningful positive change. We have to take these measures now to safeguard our future generations before it is too late.