Of late, children with disabilities in Bhutan have been receiving much attention – be it from the national stakeholders, local CSOs, or the international donor community in the country.

The concern seems to be valid as evidently, as per the existing national data from research studies, 21% of children aged 2-9 years have some form of disabilities, of which 19% are children with mild disabilities and 3% are children with moderate or severe disabilities.

Data also point out that 53 percent of children with disabilities in Bhutan do not have access to schools or institutions and a majority of them were girls. The gender disparity may hinge on the assumption that parents found it safer and convenient to keep their female child with disability at home. Then there are painful stories sometimes of children with disabilities tied to a post at home so they don’t harm themselves while parents are away working. 

According to administrative data with stakeholder agencies, of the 7,750 children with disabilities between the age of 6-18, only 1,852 children were currently enrolled in the Inclusive Schools, or in other words, a total of 5,898 children with disabilities were not in schools or institutions. In Thimphu alone a total of 463 children with disabilities were at home and not in schools or institutions.

However, the alarming situation should not be construed as one being ignored by the government and the Bhutanese society as a whole.

As early as in 1973, the government started a school for blind children which was later followed by a school for deaf children. Building up on its effort for an inclusive education, the government established Special Education Needs (SEN) Units embedded within the identified regular schools. Local CSOs have joined to complement the efforts of the government. 

For international development partners in the country, of late, the agenda seems to be on reaching the most vulnerable children, where children with disabilities were identified as a category of vulnerable children. 

But the effort and investment so far have not resulted in desired outcomes as indicated by the data where a large number of children with disabilities still remained unreached. 

Second, it establishes the fact that there is a lack of capacity to reach children with neurological disability such as autism, down syndrome, etc.

So far the immediate reaction, when responding to children with disabilities has been, access-related – putting in place ramps for wheelchair in classrooms and restrooms, and a separate space where children with disabilities were taught an adapted curriculum. 

It defied inclusivity as children with disabilities are kept separately and only their teachers are provided with some basic teaching-learning skills. 

The existing school programmes for children with disabilities show that it has not dawned upon the educationist that learning literacy and numeracy may not be the need for children with neurological disorders. Perhaps learning to hold a spoon and trying to eat may be what is necessary. In other words, the need is functional education rather than academic so they can also live and thrive independently. 

As for those unreached children with disabilities, perhaps it is worth considering taking programmes and initiatives to them, at their home, rather than trying to bring them to schools and institutions. It just might save resources and time. 

Contributed by,

Bishal Rai