During the selection of students for various undergraduate programs at Thames International College, a student on a wheelchair applied. Although she was on the wheelchair temporarily to recover from an accident, it was my first experience, as an administrator, with an applicant with disability. It made me reflect on various ways of accommodating her in our college. This encounter with a potential student jolted me into exploring the issue of inclusion within educational spaces in Nepal.
We live and work in a society that comprises of people with disabilities. So, knowing the ways to live and work with them in harmony is good for everyone involved and the only way towards a just society. In an educational context, being inclusive of persons with disabilities could involve accepting them as an integral part of the classroom as a student, a colleague, as facilitators and as administrators and supporting them when and where needed.
Building inclusive classrooms can be an important step towards educational integration of persons with disabilities, yet there are several other challenges which need to be addressed for them to access such inclusive classrooms. One prominent challenge, among many, is commuting to these classrooms. Reflecting merely on this aspect gives us an idea of the myriad challenges persons with disabilities face in everyday lives.
Persons with disability and with means might be brought to educational spaces and taken back home by others, yet they have limited mobility and are dependent on the others for their commute. Those who can afford disability-friendly vehicles also struggle with many public spaces. I recall an incident in the recent past where wheelchair users demolished a new pavement in Jorpati, close to the office of the Nepal Disability Association, for not being disability-friendly.
Those relying on public transport might be the most marginalized group in terms of mobility. Several surveys note that persons with disability experienced feeling unwelcome and even harassed in public transport. Such difficult experiences intensify the struggles of people with disabilities to even reach educational spaces. Although Nepal has several policies and legislations on ensuring that persons with disabilities have access to transport, these intended policies have not been able to significantly help people in everyday lives. Like many other well-intended policies, they suffer from inadequate implementation, enforcement and failure of the state-machinery to follow up with plans.
Providing access to and including persons with disabilities in classrooms are representative of the numerous steps that need to be taken to support them in their everyday lives. The larger question is: how can we integrate people with disability in everyday lives in Nepal?
The first and an important response that we can as individuals and a society offer is to not overlook their abilities because of their disability, or generalize their abilities based on their disability, or discriminate them for their disability in all spheres of life. The next step could involve being inclusive of persons with disabilities in public and private spaces. For example, helping them in public transport, asking if you can help them—but not unilaterally deciding that they need help and jumping in to help, which could be disempowering for them—would facilitate their integration in public spaces.
At a macro level, ensuring the implementation of inclusive policies and affirmative action for people with disabilities would be necessary. Many countries have worked towards such inclusive societies and Norway has exemplified inclusive classrooms where students with different abilities are integrated in regular classrooms and not in isolated ‘special’ ones. They have proven such inclusion adds value to learning in general by promoting sensitivity towards others and building everyone’s capacity to work amid diversity in classroom as well as at work—a skill highly desired in spheres of education and employment.
It is necessary and it is high time for educational policies to explicitly prioritize, discuss and guide inclusion of persons with disability. In November 2019, a new National Education Policy was approved by the Council of Ministers. This policy envisions educated, civilized, healthy and capable human resource, social justice, transformation and prosperity and promises each citizen’s access to compulsory and free basic education. Inclusive policies are a good start towards an inclusive education and only time will show how the nation traverses this long journey of uptake of the policy into making inclusive classrooms a shared reality.
The author worked as a faculty and administrator at Thames International College, Kathmandu from 2010-18. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Boston College, USA