January, 2017

An introduction : The Office of Learning Support at Ashoka University

By Anita Rajan

Ashoka University’s Office of Learning Support (OLS) conducted its first set of workshops along with their first guest session on “Accommodating difference? Stories of disabled students’ encounter with the Law in India,” on the 22nd of November at Ashoka University. The session was held by Prof. Saptarshi Mandal, Assistant Professor and Assistant Director, Centre for Human Rights Studies at Jindal Global Law School.

The history of India’s legal relationship with persons who have disabilities has been a long and ongoing battle. The first legislation providing accommodations for disabled persons was passed in India in the year 1995, succeeding a set of inclusive-legislations passed by USA, Australia and the UK a couple of years earlier. “ This was during the time of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation. In many ways, and this is one example in particular, about the effect of globalisation in law”, says Professor Saptarshi.

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He continues “India’s law back then was not as strong as any of these Western countries”. For starters, the act recognised only seven impairments as disabilities, and there was no provision for partial disabilities, let alone recognition of learning disabilities. In addition to this, the law stated that, “Persons with at least 40% of a disability are entitled to certain benefits such as reservations in education and employment, preference in government schemes, etc,” and to avail these reservations, a person has to be certified my medical professionals.

The key problem, as Prof. Saptarshi says, “ These examinations were considered to be objective since science was involved, but there was ample room for individual biases”. When it came to educational institutions and provisions towards disabled students, there was a list of issues that were either not explained or were subsequently  dealt with through complacent methods.

Broad examples could be highlighted in many higher education institutions. Often, there would be a ramp to help make campuses wheelchair-friendly. However, many of these ramps would be unusable or hazardous, as the gradient of the slope would have been made in a hurry.

“Often things were done just to check the box, without giving it any practical thought”, continues the professor. Apart from a three percent reservation for disabled students, the law gave provisions for free material, government transportation as well as necessary infrastructural support.

After a number of cases of neglect, students took to the court to assert their rights. Saptarshi says,“ It was seen that courts had taken a stand on one of two sides : One, agreeing with students, against the practice of the second certification scheme by medical and engineering colleges. Two, some courts agreed that technical courses were not meant for disabled people”.

In educational institutions, these provisions grew more vague, as definitions of “reasonable accommodations” for disabled students fell under subjective bias. Another trajectory that the law had not addressed were private universities and quoting the law and a judgment passed by the Supreme court bench in 2010 by justices R.M. Raveendran, R.M.Lodha and C.K Prasad, which affirmed that,“The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, did not cast any obligation on private companies and schools.”

Dr Amit and Shelja Sen, prominent child & adolescent Psychiatrists at Children First recognize the problems caused by this void. They say, “Many students with learning difficulties thrive when they are given the extra support during their undergrad course. However, Indian colleges have overlooked this need completely leading to drop-outs or repeated failures. In today’s fragmented and polarised world, it reflects the inclusive philosophy of the college. This is vital to prepare our young minds to reach their full potential and be democratic citizens.”

At Ashoka University, a private philanthropic institution located in Sonepat, the Office of Learning Support was inducted to address not only support and accommodation towards physical disabilities, but learning disabilities as well. Reena Gupta, Founder and Director of Mindsera, is the director of the Office at Ashoka. According to her, disabilities, along with learning disabilities often don’t find an open space for dialogue at educational institutions. She says, “ The idea of a dedicated office to support different learners at the university level in India was new and in a way revolutionary. More so because a majority of educationists in our country find it difficult to believe that anything like learning disability exists and that it is for real. Physical disabilities, Yes.

Visual, hearing and loco-motor impairments are visible and so easily acceptable but hidden disabilities are still a long way from acceptance in India. While schools in India have started recognising learning disabilities and setting up the support systems, when it comes to beyond school, there is next to nothing.  Learning disabilities in students do not just go away – it is life-long and thus the support systems need to extend throughout the education system. With this much-needed change in our higher-education system in mind, the idea of a dedicated Office of Learning Support (OLS) resonated well with the Ashoka management. The concept also received strong support from key founders of the University.”

With the right support from the authorities, the Office of Learning Support (OLS) was formally set up in July’16. The office has designed an inclusive education framework with various activities related to the management of  learning difficulties due to Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, ADD/ADHD, and visual impairment. In future, the office endeavours to provide support for difficulties related to other impairments too.

Since Ashoka follows a rigorous and well-rounded selection process during admissions, the aim is to ensure that students with learning difficulties are not disadvantaged in either the admissions process or during the holistic learning experience at the campus. The Office has also designed a sustainable culture of accepting learning differences as a matter of routine amongst the faculty, staff and the student body.

Since the concept has yet to gain widespread acceptance amongst all stakeholders, including all faculty members and students themselves, the office understands that besides working with students, an awareness campaign needs to be kicked in. Collaborating with other support systems at the campus, holding workshops with faculty members, inviting fellow professionals for talks are some of the awareness measures OLS has taken up. Most importantly, the office encourages students to understand the factors that can, despite their learning difficulties, help in managing their  learning outcomes and gaining self-advocacy skills to support their needs.  Each student is thus  welcome to request learning support for their specific condition. They may seek   academic interventions  with respect to Accommodations and Remediation, specific to their learning profile.

The newly proposed amendments to the law are pending in the monsoon session of the parliament, and one of the most pertinent provisions under the law would be the increase in the number of recognised disabilities from 7 to 19.

The problem, however, seems to be consensus, according to Prof. Saptarshi. “ The problem now, in terms of the law being passed is that different government ministries cannot agree to a particular set of provisions and at the same time, different disability groups cannot arrive at an agreeable consensus”, he says.

Dr. Vijaya Dutt , Head, Step by Step School in Noida, concludes, “It is heartening to know that Ashoka University has taken such a positive and unique step towards supporting young adults with different educational needs at the level of higher education. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Ashoka University, a pioneer in initiating such a wonderful and much needed programme. I hope other Universities will follow suit.”

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