Intellectual disabilities and higher education: the case for separate reservations

The 5 % reservation in higher education prescribed in the 2016 Disabilities Act presents both an opportunity and a conundrum for young persons with intellectual disabilities.  This provision opens the door for the collegiate experience and a valuable job qualification. However, a key concern is that very often, colleges do not provide separate reservations for this category, making students with intellectual and physical disabilities compete for the same reserved seats. Two cases, in the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, argue that this practice renders the benefit illusory for the former.

In the case of Aryan Raj vs. Government College of Arts, Chandigarh filed in 2019, the Supreme Court is hearing the appeal of the petitioner, a person with intellectual disability, that he was denied equal opportunity to gain admission to the Diploma in Fine Arts course in the Government College of Arts, Chandigarh in the disciplines of Painting and Applied Art. The college did not distinguish the seats reserved for intellectual and physical disabilities, and selection was based on performance in a common aptitude test.  No relaxation in marks were allowed for him, resulting in his being declared unsuccessful in the aptitude test. The petitioner sought directions from the Court that the college bifurcate the reserved seats between the intellectual and physical disability categories, and constitute a Special Board comprising experts in the field of intellectual disability to evolve a method for assessing fitness of such students for the Diploma in Fine Arts course, instead of the Aptitude Test.  However, the Punjab and Haryana High Court did not grant the relief sought. Read here the judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, which has been appealed in the Supreme Court.

In the case of Vaibhav Bajaj vs. University of Delhi filed in 2018 in the Delhi High Court, the petitioner, a person with dyslexia, sought admission to the B.Com course in a college close to his home, so that he could avail of the extra family and academic support required to negotiate the curriculum. But the two closest colleges had declared their B.Com course “closed”, claiming they had fulfilled their reservation obligation, even though they had admitted hardly any students with intellectual disabilities. The problem was not far to see: the colleges did not differentiate between candidates with physical and intellectual disabilities in providing reservations. As a result, no effort was made at equitable distribution. Secondly, these colleges had declared the B.Com course “closed” to persons with disabilities, even though the overall mandate of 5% reservation in all courses was not fulfilled. However, the Delhi High Court did not grant the relief sought. Read here the judgment of the Delhi High Court in this case, from which the filing of an appeal is pending.

Case Analysis and Opinion

Appeals are pending from the judgments of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, as well as the Delhi High Court. These judgments do not appear to be correct, as they effectively place candidates with intellectual and physical disabilities on the same footing for admission to college courses. Section 32 of the 2016 Disabilities Act provides that 5% of seats in institutions of higher education be reserved for persons with benchmark disabilities. Although a break up of seats amongst the different categories of disabilities is not specifically provided, the Act clearly intends that there be equitable distribution of reserved seats so that candidates from the different disability categories have a fair chance at admission.  This effectively means having separate reservations for candidates with physical and intellectual disabilities.  Not doing so would mean that unequals are being treated as equals, as the differentiated cognitive abilities of those with intellectual and physical disabilities are not being recognized.  For example, a Delhi University circular (click here to read) of 2015 stipulates that reserved seats be distributed to the extent of 1 % for each disability category (although this was not implemented in the second case cited above). Further, the methods to evaluate and select candidates with intellectual disabilities for particular courses must be suitably designed.  Therefore, the demand in the first case cited above for a Special Board with experts in the field seems to be reasonable, rather than applying the same entrance tests for all categories of disabilities.

The problem does not stop at reservations in admission. Even assuming admission in college is obtained, there usually are no modified curricula or separate evaluation / grading systems for students with intellectual disabilities, so that they may be able to complete the course and be awarded a degree or a certificate.

The key points that arise in these cases

The colleges and universities have a legal obligation to ensure differentiated higher education for persons with intellectual disabilities, so that the promise in the 2016 Disabilities Act for inclusive higher education is realized. This would include providing separate reservations and selection criteria for students from this category, as also modified course curricula and grading / evaluation systems. If these requirements are not addressed by institutions of higher education, they will be in violation of not only the spirit and purpose of the Act, but also of Article 14, the non-discrimination clause of the Constitution of India.