EducationNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 9

Punjab’s ‘Special’ Education Policy

On December 4, 2019, the then Punjab Special Education Department’s secretary Syed Javed Iqbal Bukhari had said: “Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities – and I am happy to mark this day with the introduction of our policy, and sharing with the world the achievements of our youths chronicled in these success stories”.

On the same day after two years (2021), special education teachers and critics wonder what is the use of launching the new policy if not even a single clause of it is implemented.

Senior officials at the launching ceremony of the “first-ever” special education policy had claimed that the people with disabilities would have access to an inclusive and improved education system that meets their needs. But Ms. Summaiya Haroon*, a senior teacher at a high school for special children in Lahore, says the school had only received an official letter about two years back and then nothing was heard of it. She wonders how an official letter would help implement an “inclusive and improved education system” for the students with disabilities.

However, Provincial Minister for Special Education Chaudhry Muhammad Akhlaq believes giving a new policy for special education is, in itself, an achievement, as the Special Education Department had been functioning without any formal policy since 2003.

The new policy had promised increasing the number of educational institutions dedicated to the Special Education Department (SpED), and making the role of the research and development unit more central in providing analyses for better decision-making. A spokesperson for the SpED says the promises made in that regard are being fulfilled with the passage of time. She says in the fiscal year 2020-2021, the department set up five Special Education Centres, strengthened seven and upgraded four others to secondary level.

According to official data, there are a total of 302 special education institutes at primary, secondary, and university levels, with the capacity to cater to around 35,000 special students. The department has more than 600 buses for the pick-up and drop-off service to both teachers and students, and 42 hostels, offering accommodation to 2,000 special students.

The people with disabilities make up 13.4% of the total population of Pakistan, accounting for approximately 28 million people. According to the Punjab Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 17.9% of all children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the province have one or more functional disabilities. Since the establishment of the SpED in 2003, the department has been imparting education to children with disabilities through 294 institutions, including degree colleges, training colleges, schools, vocational institutes and special education centres, having an enrolment of above 32,345 (20,404 boys and 11,941 girls).

However, is there any match if the department says 294 educational institutions are serving a population of 28 million people with disabilities? People concerned have serious doubts about the authenticity of the official data of persons with disabilities. They believe actual figures might be much higher than the reported figures.

The spokesperson, however, has a point to justify the performance of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in Punjab. She says it takes some time to mitigate the effects of years of neglect and clarifies that all possible measures, including budgetary allocations, are being taken to effectively meet the educational needs of the persons with disabilities. During the fiscal year 2021-22, Rs755 million had been allocated for the Special Education Department, which was 36% higher than the last year’s budget of Rs555 million). Last year, there were a total of 14 Annual Development Programmes (ADPs), while the new budget came up with 25 fresh ADPs, including five ongoing and 20 new schemes. In this fiscal year (2021-2022), key initiatives include the construction of nine purpose-built buildings of special education institutions in Gujranwala, Attock, Faisalabad, Mianwali, Lodhran, Muzaffargarh, Sialkot, Sheikhupura, Kasur and Vehari. Altogether, in the last three years, 14 institutes have been upgraded and 17 new customised buildings constructed as special education centres, the spokesperson says.

A few months ago, Minister Akhlaq Ahmad had informed the media about “the biggest and signature project of the Special Education Department” which was the establishment of a special education children’s village at Sharaqpur in Sheikhupura district. The special children’s village will not only provide accommodation and food but also ample and customised facilities for extracurricular and physical activities. Moreover, all advanced level free co-curricular and recreational facilities will be provided to the children all over Punjab. The minister said the mega project would provide the best environment to every special child of the province.

The spokesperson tells Cutting Edge that a helpline, 1162, has been established for providing guidance to the parents of differently-abled children and lodging their complaints. The best aspect of the helpline is that when the data of a new child is received, it’s added to the system and a proper follow-up is ensured, from enrolment in a special education centre to resources and feedback.

The minister had said that due to a lack of proper awareness about special education institutions, the admission rate to the centres was quite low. In fact, children with disabilities were 10 times less likely to visit a school. “We are working with the aim to bridge the gap. In the same context, our officers started a door-to-door awareness campaign to increase enrolment in our education centres; resultantly in just three weeks, 4,000 special children were admitted to our institutes,” he had claimed.

The spokesperson says that for ease of parents, the department has launched a mobile app that helps identify the geographical location of the SpED centres, submission of forms for online admission and the provision of information about all services being provided by the Special Education Department. To ensure the safety of the special children, adds the spokesperson, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have been installed in schools and buses. Over 2,976 cameras have been installed in special education institutions in Punjab, whereas 807 are in buses alone. In three years, the department has added 63 new buses to the system to provide safe and secure pick-up and drop-off services to the students of special education institutions.

However, Ms. Summaiya is not convinced. She says there might be data to paint a rosy picture on paper, but the situation has not changed yet. She hopes the Special Education Policy 2020 will be translated into reality in the coming years to change the on-the-ground situation for the special children.