Why Are Millions of Children Missing from India's Classrooms?

India has a significant population of children who are missing out on their right to education.

Children with special needs are among the most underserved when it comes to global education. In the United States, we are facing an overall teacher shortage, but the lack of qualified Special Education teachers is especially acute. Educators in the US shy away from the field due to significantly higher volumes of paperwork, leading to hours more work than they are contractually obligated to do (more on that in this excellent article.) In India, however, the problems are a bit more nuanced.

In the year 2000, UNICEF reported that there were 30 million children living with disabilities in India, but fewer than 5% of these children were enrolled in school. That leaves millions of children without proper education. Other than raw numbers, reliable information about special education in India is difficult to find. When found, even the numbers are often vague and conflicting. This is because developing countries don’t often collect disability data. So, are these numbers correct? If so, what happens to the millions of children who don’t receive formal education?

Faced with these questions, I turned to one of our own PaperSeed Champions: Anita Bhardwaj. Anita was recognized in 2015 for her exceptional special education class. Anita engages her students by using puppets, fosters independence by creating responsibilities within the classroom, and advocates for more inclusive special education. Now, she is teaching colleagues her methods as she continues to teach and advocate for disability awareness.

Anita Bhardwaj with her students.

Anita Bhardwaj with her students.


Anita stated that only 1% of children with special needs are enrolled in school. Shame and acceptance play a major role, as parents of children with special needs are afraid of unwanted negative attention they may receive from their community. Anita wrote:

Parents are afraid of the community's view . . . In India, people believe that to be a special child is a result of sin of parents, or it is the result of your bad deeds of previous birth. Parents don’t tell anyone that their child has any type of disability. Nowadays, by technical development in cities only, the view is changing . . . some parents are ready to talk about their child's disability. They want them to enroll in school. But they don’t want them to enroll in special schools. They thought that if they did so their community will not accept their child as a normal human being.”

The World Report on Disability cites awareness, negative attitudes, and abuse as major barriers to support for children with special needs. It is not unusual for families to hide these children, or infantilize them. The report goes on to cite that countries with more visible populations of people with special needs and disabilities have better success advocating for inclusive education, demanding equal rights, and enacting policy reform. When children with special needs are kept at home, they are missing an opportunity to become self-advocates, and the cycle of hiding, shame, and—at times—abuse continue. But, the problem is not just shame.

In India, most mainstream schools don’t have special education programs or dedicated special education classrooms. As such, teachers often encourage parents to keep their children with special needs at home. Teachers, Anita says, do not want the added burden of a student with special needs in their classrooms of 50-60 students. In addition to working in overcrowded classrooms, teachers are not required to undergo any formal training around the educational needs of children with developmental delays.

Though there are some special schools in India, they are few and far between, often located in cities, and there are not nearly enough to serve the high population of children with special needs. PaperSeed has proudly worked with two schools that support special education in India: Umang Charitable Trust and Muskan Therapy Center. Muskan was running a successful therapy center, but demand for their services was so high that they needed to open a second location. Umang Charitable Trust had a couple of thriving centers in Kandivali and North Mumbai, but parents in other parts of the city were having difficulty traversing the city to bring their students to school. PaperSeed helped Umang establish an additional school in East Mumbai to serve the population.

Student working with an aide at Muskan Therapy Center.

Student working with an aide at Muskan Therapy Center.

India’s constitution asserts that, “free and compulsory education should be provided to all children until they complete the age of 14 years.” In spite of that, millions of children with special needs are missing out on their educations and—as a result—are not given the opportunity to live the rich and fulfilling lives that education affords us. So what can be done?

Advocacy is a huge first step. Anita Bhardwaj champions and advocates for her students, and children with special needs everywhere, by raising awareness, training her colleagues, and speaking out. NGOs can help by working with their communities and people like Anita to raise awareness. Creating learning materials for teachers and improving formal training to include strategies for teaching children with special needs is essential. More than anything, we have to change the way the world thinks about people who are born differently. Children with special needs are not unable to learn, they simply need to be encouraged and empowered to learn in different ways.