Leaving No One Behind: The Role of Special Education in Pakistan

Special education, catering to the special needs of the disabled, is in in a debilitated state in Pakistan. A rise in the number of disabled is not supported with appropriate tools to identify and integrate them into mainstream society. However, with a Special Education Policy in the works, the Government of Punjab aims to move towards a more inclusive education system. This policy intends to categorize disabilities into four main groups, namely mild, moderate, severe and profound, and enhance public policy towards persons with disabilities (PWDs). Nonetheless, the adoption of this new pedagogical approach collides with the existing stigma attached with ‘disability’, and when this is further coupled with inadequacy in identifying and targeting those who suffer from it, it becomes difficult to construct a viable support system to facilitate those with disabilities in Pakistan.

According to the 2017 Population and Housing Census, 0.48 percent of Pakistan’s population is disabled; this shows a stark decrease from the 2.38 percent figure in the 1998 census. Other sources, such as the World Bank Report on Disability places the disability ratio in Pakistan at 3.56 percent, whereas the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) indicates that 22.1 percent of the government schools have children with disabilities. This discrepancy regarding the number of disabled in Pakistan is connected to an underlying problem of identification. With no universal definition of disability in place and limited constitutional cover in Pakistan, these figures are deemed as controversial and unrepresentative of the true extent of this issue.

The Consortium for Development Policy Research organized a Policy Exchange talk, focused on ‘Leaving No One Behind,’ bringing together a panel of experts to discuss the future of special education in Pakistan. It explored the state of special education in Pakistan, as well as discussed the recent initiatives the Government has undertaken in improving access to education for people with disabilities.

The panel highlighted that a traditional binary approach was used for identifying PWDs in the census, where respondents were asked a yes or no question about whether they have a disability. The binary nature of this question does not account for those who suffer from undiagnosed disabilities or those who do not wish to identify as disabled due to family pressure and stigma. This inability to gather robust and meaningful data on disability severs the efforts made to integrate PWDs into the mainstream education system, and emphasizes the continued need to design and implement stronger mechanisms for the identification of those with disabilities.

Challenges for Addressing Special Education Needs

The aim of embracing inclusive education for people with disabilities has grown from minimal awareness and prioritization to a recognized component of the education policy in Pakistan, especially with the introduction of Article 25A in the Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantees a right to education for all. However, when one zooms in at the school level, there is still a sense of widespread confusion regarding what it means to be inclusive. Currently, children with disabilities are not only ten times less likely to attend schools compared to their peers without disabilities, but for even those who attend mainstream schools, the dropout rates are much higher for those with disabilities. This depicts a self-perpetuating trap, where lack of education amplifies the disadvantage associated with a disability, becoming another impediment towards the rehabilitation of PWDs.

Inclusive education entails that all children must be accepted as members of the social community, where the education setting for those with disabilities should be the same as their non-disabled peers. This mainstreaming approach at the school-level is focused on those who suffer from low to medium levels of disability. Experts recommend that children with mild levels of disability should not be segregated, but supported with special teachers and policy reforms in the mainstream education system. On the other hand, special education schools are required to accommodate those with severe or profound disabilities in order to address their special needs adequately aimed towards making them productive participants of society.

Although inclusiveness is a recognized goal on paper, it is not practiced at the school level, where either inadequate teacher training or social stigma prevents the identification of those with special needs. It is easier to identify a child with a physical disability, but becomes much more complicated in the case of a child who is mentally challenged and yet appears to be similar to his or her peers in other aspects.

Moreover, the rampant ignorance and discrimination against those with disabilities becomes more apparent in their life after school. With bleak employment prospects and lack of government support, these PWDs lack the means to sustain themselves. Their agony was evident in the recent protests at Mall Road, Lahore, where the visually impaired came out on the road to demand the Government to fill in the 8,000 vacant positions for the disabled in Punjab’s public sector alone.

The Role of Punjab Special Education Department

In the case of Punjab, special education falls under the mandate of the Special Education Department, which became independent from the School Education Department in 2003. Since then, the Special Education Department has successfully established 302 special education institutes at primary, secondary, and university levels, with the capacity to cater to around 35,000 disabled students. It has more than 600 buses to offer a pick and drop service to both teachers and students, and 42 hostels, offering accommodations to 2,000 disabled students. The Punjab Government now also offers a monthly stipend of 800 PKR to those with a disability, along with a health card to compensate for their medical expenses. Hence, this begs the question that if not capacity, where does the government lag in terms of policy making to improve access to education for PWDs?

Moreover, the new special education policy in Punjab promises to create better collaboration with different departments, especially the health and education departments, to improve the future prospects of PWDs. It also aims to increase the number of special education institutes in the province, while improving the role played by the research and development unit in enhancing decision-making and identification of disabilities.

The Way Forward

It is essential to understand that inclusion of any kind comes with acceptance, and hence, establishing an inclusive education system in Pakistan requires commitment towards cultivating relationships across students, parents, teachers, and the broader community based on increased awareness about mental illness. Examples exist worldwide where those with special needs have been integrated into mainstream society with proper support and inclusive policymaking. The education system in Finland, for instance, acknowledges the fact that at some stage in his or her life, every child requires help and support to move forward. Hence, the Finnish Government prioritizes early identification of those with special needs, such as learning difficulties, emotional or behavioral problems, and physical disabilities, by offering specialized support at the school level.

To ensure that inclusive and equitable education is offered to all children in Pakistan, the country needs to provide support at every level. This entails clearly devising identification parameters for different forms of disabilities and preferably combining social diagnosis for disabilities with a medical one. For instance, ASER has moved away from a binary questionnaire towards a more multi-dimensional approach, underpinned by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) model. The ICF model recognises disability as a three-fold issue based on an individual’s biological, psychological and social condition, generating unique insights regarding the incidence of disability in Pakistan.

Moreover, proper identification of disability must be followed by greater awareness at school-level for students, parents, teachers, and the school administration. Teachers must be trained to identify children with special needs during the early years of education, while the Higher Education Commission (HEC) must also facilitate these children with relaxations in subject selection and examinations. Lastly, it is also essential to create more inclusive spaces at the societal level, whether it is through designing more inclusive buildings or setting quotas for employment.