By Adhiraj Mukerji, Prakhar Soni, and Varun Kapoor
Education in India has always held a position of prime importance. Be it a child’s marks being compared to the eternally over-achieving, possibly fictional Sharmaji ka beta or colleges attempting to ensure their cut-offs keep soaring year on year, education has been hotly debated and talked about. This article attempts to discuss a facet of education that we believe has been severely neglected, that of inclusion and the teaching of children with special needs (CWSN). The question posited aims at identifying the gaps in the current system and more importantly, attempting to bring some clarity to the discourse surrounding the issue.
As per the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ‘persons with disabilities’ include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments; which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society. The World Health Organization (WHO) furthers the aforementioned statement as any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in a manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. There are multiple classifications of disabilities and various countries group them under different types of heads. However, some of the more commonly used groupings/types are visual impairment, hearing impairment, learning impairment, autism, speech or language problems, physical impairment, emotional problems and cognitive impairment.
As of 2014-15, CWSN in Indian schools, across all managements, accounted for 1.2 percent, 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent of total children enrolled at elementary, secondary and higher secondary level of education. One of the main issues that these numbers portray is that the percentage of CWSN enrolled in schools does not represent the total population of the CWSN in the country. This is chiefly because several parents of CWSN do not attempt to enrol their children because they feel that the school will not be able to cater to the requirement and nuanced situations of the child. It is important to remember that these numbers are pan-Indian and do not cater to the more urban and equipped schools. When schools in villages across the country are unable to provide basic facilities such as chairs and tables, believing that they are equipped, trained and able to adequately engage with CWSN is simply silly. This is not a judgement on schools in rural areas alone; most urban schools also fail miserably in this regard. These systematic failures point to a much larger and notional problem. Special needs are simply not accorded the level of attention and priority that is needed.
India, on paper at least, has several policies and reforms that have aimed at dealing with this particular facet of education. Unfortunately, the broad perception of children with special needs has resulted in them often being labelled under the banner of “mental retardation.” Insensitivity aside, such homogeneous labelling can only result in poor implementation and half-baked policies. The first CABE Report (1944) specifically stressed on access to education for CWSN to be an essential part of the National education framework. The National Policy of Education (1986 and 1992), the Persons with Disabilities Act (1995) and the Right to Education Act (2009) all reassert the right to education for CWSN. However in terms of execution, on-ground realities portray a gloomy picture especially for children with intellectual disabilities, who still face hurdles with adjusting in a general classroom setup.
The standard parameters which have been established to judge schools are also problematic at times. To cite an instance, having schools with ramps and provision of CWSN friendly toilets in schools as indicators are not enough to gauge or conclude the presence of an inclusive environment within schools. Current government evaluations use such tangible parameters as metrics to determine the effectiveness of a school. While such infrastructural requirements are indeed important, they cannot overshadow the primary need of children with special needs. The use physical infrastructure and related criteria alone as an indicator of success results in disingenuous and manufactured ideas of on-ground realities. While other, intangible parameters like the training level of teachers are also examined, it remains too easy to simply use these “in-your-face” tangible numbers to show the apparent effectiveness of schemes related to CWSN. One has to analyse the intangible aspects as well and come up with enabling measures that would further the goal of establishing an inclusive environment for CWSN. A more holistic view and academic approach needs to be undertaken, if the effectiveness of such programs is to be properly gauged.
The most important stakeholders in an inclusive education set up are the school staff, students and parents and in these circles, acceptance, awareness and sensitivity is crucial. Therefore, before even proceeding to provide for suitable physical infrastructure one must delve into the attitudes of the aforementioned stakeholders to assess whether they socially understand and accept the inclusion of CWSN within a general classroom setting and whether they are equipped to establish an inclusive environment. Herein, ‘equipped’ does not refer to any conventional technical skills but rather refers to the degree of sensitivity with which the aforementioned stakeholders interact with CWSN. This aspect is one of the most underrated notions when it comes to special educators. As with most of the issues described earlier, this too stems from a fundamental lack of awareness and understanding of how special needs education works. The prevalent attitude prevents an in-depth understanding, thereby leading to sub-standard policies and almost zeros implementation.
In rural areas, awareness on disabilities becomes an even bigger hurdle as there are multiple instances where parents of children with disabilities are not fully aware of the type/extent of development disability that their child is faced with. As the primary advocates of education in any community, whether rural or urban, the awareness of teachers about different types of disabilities becomes even more critical here. Teachers form the vital link between a student and learning, and it is through this channel that overall human resource development takes place. It has been often pointed out that while teachers are provided with sessions on different pedagogical techniques to impart learning to CWSN, these modules rarely stress on the different types of disabilities faced by children. As a consequence, if teachers are not able to comprehend the type of disability associated with a child then, it is unfair to expect students to understand the needs of CWSN. It can also be safely assumed that a teacher who is unable to comprehend different types of disabilities will have a negative effect on the awareness and perceptions of parents.
It is imperative for central and state bodies to introduce widespread awareness building campaigns in the form of nationally broadcasted messages and posters via social and print media, roping in celebrities to advertise the same on a pro bono basis. The use of radio by both Central and State Governments to connect with the masses has seen an exponential increase in the past year or so and therefore the same can be leveraged to advocate the disabilities faced by CWSN. Such efforts have the power to translate into positive impacts, one of which being the decrease in social stigma. The model to do this already exists and it has been done multiple times in the past on issues like polio, various social schemes and women and child health.
Other institutional barriers and challenges also exist. While enabling teachers with the skill-set and sensitivity to engage with such children is important, the school is not the only environment that the child is exposed to. Community advocacy measures also need to be implemented to generate enough momentum within the larger community to combat the baggage and stigma associated with learning disabilities. A substantial portion of the populace does not understand disability and this ignorance is passed onto the other children who inhabit the classroom. In order to break this cycle of ignorance and to establish the concept of inclusion within children at an early stage, modules should be developed at the central and state level which imparts information on CWSN for all age groups. The Government, in the past, has mandated to schools to undertake sex education classes which resulted in significant positive changes. The same model can be leveraged to increase awareness amongst students.
As age groups progress, curriculum can also be broadened to include activities such as the practice of book reading followed in the American and Canadian schooling systems. Herein, each student in the classroom is required to spend a semester with an intellectually disabled child and assist her/him in reading and understanding a chosen book. Further, one could incorporate examples of ‘Big brother/sister’ concept wherein each student is supposed to spend some amount of time with an intellectually disabled child, an activity that would be based on social aspects rather than school work. Again such activities can be implemented only if the school management, students and parents of students are comfortable to the idea of inclusion in schools.
While raising awareness on CWSN in the entire country is a long-term process, with the integration of informative CWSN material in schools and the aforementioned approaches, future generations can be well-informed on the intricacies pertaining to CWSN, which would result in the establishment of enabling environment for them. A restructuring of the current system and a change in the alignment of priorities would go a long way in ensuring parity with regards to educational standards. While programs like ‘Make in India’ may dominate the headlines and skill development at ITIs might be all the rage, an entire section of the populace is being held hostage to sheer ignorance. Perhaps, it is time to worry less about the ephemeral degrees of politicians and worry about the actual education of our people.
Adhiraj Mukerji is a development consultant for Ernst & Young. His main areas of interest are security, international relations, and education policy.
Prakhar Soni is also a development consultant for E&Y. His main areas of interest are education policy, women’s and child rights, and skill development.
Varun Kapoor is a former development consultant for E&Y. His main areas of interest are public policy and education.