For a girl born into the family of an unlettered man in a jhuggi cluster of Nehru Place, polio-stricken Phool Kumari stood little chance of doing well in life. But through her sheer grit and determination, she now literally stands tall and beams with hope and joy as she narrates how her father never let her shortcoming cripple her and in fact always saw more hope and promise in her than her two younger brothers.
Phool also did not disappoint her parents and at 15 has worked her way up to Class IX. Despite her debilitating condition, which gives her a limp as she walks, she now travels all the way to her school at Mathura Road, about five kilometres from her home in Madanpur Khadar JJ Colony in South Delhi, and keeps the smile on – giving a glimpse into her strong persona.
“I love English and want to become a teacher. I also intend to learn computers soon,” she says, while holding on to a book at a library of World Vision in Madanpur Khadar. She is not the complaining type. On whether conditions in her colony or at school create hurdles in her pursuit of studies, Phool smiles and replies in the negative.
Often her classes have been on the first floor. “But I never found it too difficult to reach them. In fact I love climbing down the stairs.”
And whether there were ramps and proper toilets in the school, she says, “I never needed ramps and I never go to the toilet in school.”
However, the girl does believe that better infrastructure would bring and keep more such children in school.
Her view is shared by Sunita, as she holds on to her five-year-old daughter Saloni in her arms. “She has a problem and walks with a slight wobble. That is why I send her to a private school, but there too she has fallen several times.”
Sunita believes that for children with physical or mental handicaps, there is a need for all the schools to have a barrier-free environment.
The recent order of the Delhi High Court asking the Government to de-recognise schools if they fail to appoint special educators and make their premises barrier-free for the differently-abled may ultimately provide the kind of atmosphere in all schools which would make them safer and more comfortable for all children.
The schools have been told to become barrier-free by March 31. They have also been directed to appoint special educators for differently-abled children within two years.
The High Court had issued the directions on a petition by advocate Ashok Agarwal, who had alleged that 2,039 unaided private schools and 258 aided schools in Delhi lacked basic physical and academic infrastructure.
The issue of physical infrastructure also affects the schools being run by the Central Government, Delhi Government, Municipal Corporation of Delhi and New Delhi Municipal Council.
While a Delhi Government school in Madanpur Khadar stood out as an example of good planning through its gradual ramps and railings, the adjoining MCD primary school presented a stark contrast and displayed how things could be improved by paying a little more thought to planning and details.
“We need more toilets for the students and though the ground has been raised and tiled, the edges do not merge gradually with the corridors outside the rooms,” said a teacher.
The school has 1,300 girl students in the morning session and about 1,000 boys in the afternoon. “Only about four of them suffer on account of one disability or the other,” said an official.
Social activist Rekha, who has been working in the area for around 15 years, says it has been primarily due to the Pulse Polio campaign that the cases of physical disability have dropped significantly. And that is also the reason why scant regard has been paid over the years to make the schools barrier-free.
Works like construction of ramps have been taken up in bits and pieces; a closer look is enough to reveal their cosmetic nature. They mostly remain inaccessible due to objects lying around or steep slopes.
As disability rights activist Anjlee Agarwal of Samarthyam says, the need is for all the schools to follow the minimum standards laid and guidelines provided in the Ministry of Urban Development website.
“The Ministry had advised all municipalities and local bodies which undertake such constructions to comply with the accessibility standards,” she says, noting that “the financial provisions provided by the Ministry of Human Resource Development as Rs 5,000 for each ramp lead to flawed execution as the money is not enough in case the height has to be more and the maximum 1:12 gradient has to be followed.”
Ms. Agarwal believes the agencies should at least get their basics right.
“They can at least provide ramps with maximum 1:12 gradient, railings alongside them, toilets that are accessible with a 90 cm clear right of way, have a minimum size of two metres by 2.2 metres with commode seat in a corner, a washbasin and grab-rails.”
“This done,” the activist believes, “we will be able to reduce the inequality, discrimination and frustration among the disabled students a great deal.”